The Supreme Court on Thursday reversed a lower court decision by an 8-1 vote to back U.S.-based food companies Nestle and Cargill, which were sued by six men from Mali alleging they were trafficked into Ivory Coast as child slaves to produce cocoa. 

The six men claimed the companies facilitated human rights abuses by purchasing cocoa from plantations in Ivory Coast, a country where they were enslaved as children.

The suit claimed that Nestle and Cargill buying cocoa from Ivory Coast farms basically provided those farms with technical and financial resources. The men sued under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which provides federal courts jurisdiction to hear claims brought “by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States."

In writing with the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals erred in allowing the suit on the grounds that Nestle and Cargill had allegedly made “major operational decisions” in the U.S. and they had failed to prove that their claims “occurred in the United States... even if other conduct occurred abroad.”

However, the court stopped short of granting corporate immunity for overseas human rights violations. "A majority of justices in the decision agreed that corporations can be sued under the Alien Tort Statute," said Paul Hoffman, the attorney for the six men.

In October 2018, the 9th Circuit had ruled that the payments were akin to kickbacks and that the low price of cocoa was due to child slave labor.

“[T]he allegations paint a picture of overseas slave labor that defendants perpetuated from headquarters in the United States,” Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Dorothy Nelson wrote in the opinion. “We thus hold that [the] foregoing narrow set of domestic conduct is relevant to the ATS’s focus.”

Justice Samuel Alito, one of six conservatives on the court, was the lone dissenting vote. In his opinion, Alito said corporations should not have immunity in overseas tort cases.

"The Court instead disposes of these cases by holding that respondents' complaints seek extraterritorial application of the ATS, but in my view, we should not decide that question at this juncture," he said.

Hoffman called the loss a disappointment and “the narrowest possible loss we could have had in this instance.” He plans to file an amended complaint with an understanding that their claim under ATS “should satisfy the court's standards.”

He plans to stand behind that claim that Nestle and Cargill “control every aspect of what goes on in the production of cocoa in Ivory Coast, and they should be held accountable for abetting a system of child slavery.”

The six men claim this is an instance of aiding child slavery because the companies have a large influence over the farms and that “they should have known" and that the companies’ financial impact on the farms would have allowed them to step in.

“Child labor is unacceptable," a Nestle spokesperson said in a statement. "That is why we are working so hard to prevent it.” 

“Nestle never engaged in the egregious child labor alleged in this suit, and we remain unwavering in our dedication to combatting child labor in the cocoa industry and to our ongoing work with partners in government, non-government organizations, and industry to tackle this complex, global issue."

Nestle stated that there is a child labor problem in cocoa production.

“Access to education and improving farming methods and livelihoods are crucial to fighting child labor in cocoa production. Addressing the root causes of child labor is part of the Nestle Cocoa Plan and will continue to be the focus of our efforts in the future,” the statement read. 

Cargill also issued a statement about child labor.

“Cargill’s work to keep child labor out of the cocoa supply chain is unwavering," the company said in a statement.

"We do not tolerate the use of child labor in our operations or supply chains and we are working every day to prevent it.

“We will continue to focus on the root causes, including poverty and lack of education access. Our mission is to drive long-lasting change in cocoa communities and to lift up the families that rely on cocoa for their income.”