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Cynthia Corrie et al. v. Caterpillar Inc.

Court United States District Court, Western District of Washington at Tacoma, United States
Case number C05-5192FDB
Decision title Order granting defendant Caterpillar’s motion to dismiss
Decision date 22 November 2005
  • Cynthia Corrie
  • Craig Corrie
  • Mahmoud Omar Al Sho’bi
  • Fathiya Muhammad Sulayman Fayed
  • Fayez Ali Mohammed Abu Hussein
  • Majeda Radwan Abu Hussein
  • Eida Ibrahim Suleiman Khalafallah
  • Caterpillar, INC.
Categories Human rights violations, War crimes
Keywords war crimes, aiding and abetting, conspiracy, corporate liability, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, extrajudicial killing, Israel / Palestinian Territories, negligence, public nuisance, wrongful death
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In 2003, bulldozers manufactured by the American company Caterpillar were used by the Israeli IDF to destroy several houses on the Gaza Strip, killing several Palestinians and an American peace activist in the process. The relatives of the victims and those who lost their homes filed a suit against Caterpillar, arguing that by providing the Israeli military with bulldozers, they were liable for, among other things, war crimes and extrajudicial killing.

The District Court dismissed the claim, most importantly because it considered that selling products to a foreign government does not make the seller liable for subsequent human rights violations. Also, the Court stated that it could not prohibit Caterpillar to sell bulldozers to Israel, as this would infringe upon the government’s executive branch’s exclusive right to decide on trade restraints regarding Israel.   

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Procedural history

On 2 May 2005 a federal lawsuit was filed against Caterpillar, Inc on behalf of the parents of Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American peace activist who was run over and killed with a Caterpillar bulldozer in the Gaza Strip in 2003, and on behalf of Palestinian relatives of other victims.

The suit charges Caterpillar with aiding and abetting war crimes and serious human rights violations. The argument was made that Caterpillar provided the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) with bulldozers, knowing they would be used to demolish homes and endanger civilians in the Palestinian Territories. The plaintiffs sought compensatory and punitive damages and an injunctive order directing Caterpillar to cease its participation in providing equipment and services to the IDF. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that plaintiffs  had failed to state a claim and that the claim was barred by the ‘political question’ and ‘act of state’ doctrine.

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Related developments

Plaintiffs appealed the District Court’s dismissal to the US Court of Appeals, arguing that the District Court applied an incorrect legal standard and failed to address several arguments. After oral arguments were heard, the Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of this case on 17 September 2007, finding that it should not intrude upon the executive branch’s foreign policy decision. A petition for panel rehearing and rehearing en banc was denied on 12 January 2009. A civil lawsuit brought by the family against the Israeli military was dismissed in August 2012. 

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Legally relevant facts

On 16 March 2003, 23-year-old American peace activist Rachel Corrie attempted to protect a house from being demolished. She was run over and killed with a bulldozer. Her parents, and four Palestinian families whose houses were destroyed and family members were killed with Caterpillar bulldozers used by the IDF, brought a case against the manufacturer of the bulldozer: Caterpillar Inc (p. 1).  

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Core legal questions

The plaintiffs allege that by providing bulldozers to the IDF, Caterpillar violated both US and international law. Regarding the alleged war crimes, extrajudicial killings and secondary liability for cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, the plaintiffs brought their claims under the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) and the Alien Tort Claim Act (ATCA).

  • Regarding the ATCA, it had to be examined whether Caterpillar could be held liable for violations of international norms that are ‘specific, universal and obligatory’.
  • Regarding the TVPA, the Court had to assess whether Caterpillar was liable for subjecting individuals to extrajudicial killing.
  • Regarding the alleged violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act, the Court had to examine the plaintiff’s claim that together with the IDF, Caterpillar formed a RICO enterprise, engaged in, among other things, murder and robbery.
  • Regarding the allegations of wrongful death and negligence, the Court had to establish whether Caterpillar had duty of care towards the victims and whether this duty had been breached.
  • Regarding the claim of public nuisance, it had to be established whether Caterpillar, by supplying bulldozers to the IDF, had breached, among other things, the victims' right to health, life and public safety.  
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Specific legal rules and provisions

  • US Alien Tort Claims Act,  Paragraph 1350 of Title 28 of the US Code.
  • US Torture Victim Protection Act.

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Court's holding and analysis

The Court granted Caterpillar’s motion to dismiss. Regarding the alleged breaches of international law, the Court held that selling products to a foreign government does not make the seller a participant in that government’s alleged human rights violations, nor does it constitute aiding and abetting (pp. 4 and 8). Furthermore, the Court established that selling a legal, non-defective product to Israel, does not meet the standard of ‘specific, universal and obligatory’ norm of international law (p. 7). The TVPA could not be invoked because compensation needed to be sought in Israel first, because Caterpillar did not control alleged conduct of the IDF and because the TVPA precludes corporate liability (pp. 6-7).

Plaintiffs’ arguments regarding the RICO are dismissed as well. According to the Court there was no ‘enterprise’ of Caterpillar and the IDF.  Moreover, the sale to Israel was not the cause of the alleged injuries.

Regarding the claims of wrongful death, negligence and public nuisance, the Court rules that the IDFs conduct is too remote from the sale of the bulldozers to the Israeli government (p. 15).

According to the Court, the case interfered with the foreign policy of the US and should therefore be dismissed as well (p. 15). 

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Further analysis

Baars commented on this case. Kanwar wrote an article on the ‘political question doctrine’, with reference to this case.  The Palestine Center published a report on the Caterpillar case. Martin wrote an article on corporate liability under the Torture Victim Protection Act. Cassel wrote an article on corporate aiding and abetting of human rights violations.

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Instruments cited

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Additional materials

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