Measuring the Economic Effect of Alien Tort Statute Liability


In Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., the US Supreme Court dramatically restricted the scope of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), holding that the statute does not permit victims of human rights abuses to sue foreign corporations for violations of international law that took place entirely abroad. We draw on three unique characteristics of the decision to estimate its effect on companies’ valuations. First, we show that extractive industry firms with headquarters abroad experienced larger cumulative abnormal returns following the ruling. By contrast, similar US-based firms — which generally remain subject to ATS liability — did not benefit from the decision. Second, we demonstrate that foreign-based firms benefited both on the final decision date and on the earlier date when the Court slated the case for reargument on the issue of extraterritoriality. Third, we show that this effect varied with the human rights records of host countries: mining firms based abroad with subsidiaries in countries with poor human rights records benefitted most. Although our results cannot resolve debates over the merit of ATS suits, we do show that the Kiobel decision mattered: for foreign firms, it decreased the cost of doing business under regimes with records of human rights violations.

Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 32(4) (2016): 794–815.