Apartheid victims who accused automakers and IBM of helping the government of South Africa engage in violent repression to enforce racial segregation in the 1970s and 1980s can go to trial with their claims, a judge ruled on Wednesday.
US District Judge Shira Scheindlin rejected assertions by several countries that the lawsuits should not proceed because that might harm relations between the US and South Africa.
The written decision was related to lawsuits filed about seven years ago on behalf of victims of apartheid. The lawsuits once targeted many more US corporations, including oil companies and banking institutions, but the number of defendants was decreased after the lawsuits were tossed out by one judge and an appeals court that reinstated them said allegations needed more specifics.
After Scheindlin dismissed several more companies as defendants on Wednesday, the plaintiffs were left to press their claims against IBM Corp, German automaker Daimler AG, Ford Motor Co, General Motors Corp and Rheinmetall Group AG, the Swiss parent of an armaments maker.
The plaintiffs, at least thousands of people seeking unspecified damages, allege the automakers supplied military vehicles that let securities forces suppress black South Africans. IBM is accused of providing equipment used to track dissidents.
The judge said that the US Supreme Court had referenced the apartheid cases in the footnote of an earlier decision when it wrote “federal courts should give serious weight to the executive branch’s view of the case’s impact on foreign policy” when the US and a foreign government agree litigation could harm the domestic policies of a foreign nation.
But she said the footnote was only meant as guidance and the executive branch was not “owed deference on every topic.”
The US government had submitted a statement saying the lawsuits could become “an irritant in US-South African relations” because they might interfere with South Africa’s sovereign right to decide apartheid issues and might discourage investment in South Africa.
South African officials had said the efforts to compensate victims should be pursued within South Africa’s political and legal processes.
Defense lawyers have said corporations shouldn’t be penalized because they were encouraged to do business in South Africa during apartheid. Lawyers for the companies didn’t immediately return telephone messages on Wednesday.
Plaintiffs attorney Michael Hausfeld praised the ruling, saying it would allow his clients to begin obtaining evidence from the companies that will show what they did in relation to South Africa during apartheid.
“It’s great,” he said. “There’s a treasure of documentation that would be disclosed for the first time ever.”
Hausfeld said that besides South Africa and the US, countries including Germany, Switzerland and England had opposed letting the litigation proceed.
He said it was significant that the judge concluded that opposition by governments was not enough to halt lawsuits brought for human rights reasons. Ruling otherwise, he said, “would have given governments a veto power over the bringing of legal claims.”