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In a 34-page ruling (pdf) that one defense lawyer describes as “a sweeping review of the Alien Tort Statute,” a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Miami federal district court’s dismissal of four cases claiming that Coca-Cola and its two Colombian bottling subsidiaries were liable for the murder and torture of trade unionists by Colombian paramilitary forces. Citing the Supreme Court’s now-infamous May 2009 ruling in Ashcroft v. Iqbal (pdf), the court concluded that the plaintiffs’ complaints “fail to sufficiently plead factual allegations” to establish subject matter jurisdiction and state a valid claim.

The plaintiffs, represented by veteran Alien Tort Claims lawyer Terry Collingsworth of Conrad & Scherer, alleged in four lawsuits that two Coca-Cola bottlers, Panamco and Bebidas, collaborated with paramilitary forces in what the 11th Circuit called “the systematic intimidation, kidnapping, detention, torture, and murder of Colombian trade unionists.” The complaints didn’t accuse Coke or its bottlers of direct responsibility for the crimes, but sought compensation under the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victims Protection Act for the corporations’ alleged aiding and abetting of the paramilitary forces.

“These were heinous accusations,” said Faith Gay of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges, who has represented Coca-Cola since the suits were first filed in 2001. (Quinn partner Kathleen Sullivan worked with her at the appellate stage). “Coca-Cola was four levels removed from what was happening. We knew nothing about these events until we were sued. … It was defamation through legal pleadings.” Gay said the appellate opinion establishes that Alien Tort plaintiffs “must, in order to state a claim, show links at every level.”

Added Robert Brochin of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, who represents Panamco: “The ruling reiterates that before you can file a lawsuit, particularly one brought under the banner of human rights abuses, you have to be able to plead facts that form a plausible legal theory. The plaintiffs in this case did not do that.”

The third defendant, Bebidas, was represented throughout the litigation by William McCaughan of K&L Gates. The three firms, which split the defendants’ time when the case was argued last February, worked well together, said Gay and Brochin. Coca-Cola was dismissed as a defendant in a 2003 ruling by the district court; the bottlers in a 2006 ruling.

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