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Argentine Republic v. Amerada Hess Shipping Corp.

United States Supreme Court
488 U.S. 428 (1989)


Facts

United Carriers, Inc. (United Carriers) (plaintiff), a Liberian corporation, chartered an oil tanker (the Hercules) to Amerada Hess Shipping Co. (Amerada) (plaintiff), another Liberian corporation. Amerada used the Hercules to carry crude oil from Alaska to the U.S. Virgin Islands. On May 25, 1982, the Hercules began a return voyage to Alaska. At that time, Great Britain and the Argentine Republic (plaintiff) were at war over a group of islands located in the waters through which the Hercules planned to pass. The United States informed the two warring States of the existence of peaceful United States vessels and Liberian tankers, including the Hercules, in which the United States had an interest. The United States’ goal was to avoid attacks on neutral ships. On June 8, 1982, the Hercules was located in international waters, but was outside the “war zones” designated by Great Britain and Argentina. Her captain made a routine radio call to Argentinian authorities stating her position. Minutes later, an Argentinian war ship began circling the Hercules. Next an Argentinian military plane began bombing the ship. In total, the Hercules sustained three attacks. It was forced to reverse its course and sale to Rio de Janeiro. Once there, it was discovered that an undetonated bomb remained on the Hercules. United Carriers believed it was too dangerous to try to retrieve the undetonated bomb, and thus on July 20, 1982, the Hercules was scuttled 250 miles off the Brazilian coast. United Carriers and Amerada unsuccessfully sought relief in Argentina. They then brought suit against Argentina in United States district court for the damages sustained in the attacks. They invoked the district court’s jurisdiction under the Alien Tort Statute which provided that “the district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States. Amerada also brought suit under the United States’ general admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, and the principle of “universal jurisdiction” in customary international law. The district court dismissed the suit for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, ruling that the suits were barred by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). The court of appeals reversed, holding that the FSIA was not meant to eliminate “existing remedies in U.S. courts for violations of international law” by foreign States under the Alien Tort Statute. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.     

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Holding and Reasoning (Rehnquist, C.J.)

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