Daimler Must Face Argentina 'Dirty War' Worker Kidnappings Suit in Calif.

By Robin Enos on May 25, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In Bauman v. DaimlerChrysler Corporation, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has overruled the trial court's dismissal of Daimler Chrysler AG, from a lawsuit brought by survivors and heirs of Argentina's "dirty war," reports Reuters.

The trial court had dismissed the plaintiffs' case for lack of personal jurisdiction over DaimlerChrysler AG. So now Daimler-Chrysler must defend the plaintiffs' claims on the merits.

Argentina's military government engaged in a "dirty war" against its political opponents between 1976 and 1983. Dark accusations of responsibility for the deaths and disappearances of between 13,000 and 30,000 individuals followed the junta during and after its run in power. Most of the "disappeared ones" ("desaparecidos") were political activists, students, labor organizers and journalists.

A group of 22 survivors and heirs, all but one Argentine nationals, sued DaimlerChrysler in U.S. District Court in San Jose, California, in 2005. Plaintiffs allege Daimler-Chrysler's subsidiary, Mercedes-Benz Argentina, participated in the kidnapping of employees and labor organizers by the military dictatorship. Thus, plaintiffs claim, DaimlerChrysler has liability for those individuals' kidnapping, beatings and deaths, reports Reuters.

So how does a U.S. District Court in California have in personam jurisdiction over a multinational corporation with headquarters in Germany?

Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt, writing for a unanimous three-judge appellate panel, affirmed the trial court ruling, holding U.S. courts have jurisdiction of this dispute.

Judge Reinhardt reasoned that in 2005, when the plaintiffs' suit was filed, Daimler Benz AG, a German corporation, had merged with Chrysler Corporation, an American company with headquarters in Michigan. Daimler-Chrysler AG (DCAG), during its existence, maintained "dual operational headquarters" in Stuttgart, Germany, and Detroit, Michigan.

Judge Reinhardt upheld the district court's finding that DCAG's wholly-owned US subsidiary, Mercedes-Benz USA, was and is DCAG's agent in the United States. And Mercedes-Benz has maintained a large presence in the U.S. for decades, including California, selling many thousands of vehicles through Mercedes-Benz USA.

Judge Reinhardt used the agency theory to rule that DCAG had "systematic and continuous" contact with the forum state (California), and that exercise of general jurisdiction over DCAG's operations in Argentina is reasonable.

Judge Reinhardt's decision in Bauman v. DaimlerChrysler Corporation focuses narrowly on in personam jurisdiction. The opinion is silent about the merits of plaintiffs' "dirty war" claims under the Alien Tort Act (28 U.DS.C. sec. 1350), or the related Torture Victims Protection Act of 1991.

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