(Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court Judge on Tuesday appeared cautious about closing US companies' lawsuits for alleged human rights abuses abroad but signaled they could drop a case accusing Cargill Inc. and a subsidiary to Nestle SA to consciously help to perpetuate slavery at Côte d'Ivoire's cocoa farms.
The two companies ask the nine courts to reverse a court decision allowing the trial, which was handed down in 2005 on behalf of former child slaves from Mali who worked on the farms, to proceed.  The case concerns a US law from 1789, called the Alien Tort Statute, which allows non-US citizens to claim damages in US courts in certain cases. The business community has long tried to limit corporate responsibility under this law.
Some jurists questioned whether the trial actually made it clear that company officials knew that the farms involved used child slavery.
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The court could dismiss the trial for these reasons but stop a decision that would limit corporate liability entirely under the law, with some justices expressing reservations to take that step.
Liberal Justice Elena For example, Kagan asked what would happen if a group of slaveholders who could normally be sued individually formed a company to avoid liability.
"And now you say you can not sue the company?" Kagan asked lawyer Neal Katyal, who argued for Justice.
Justice Alito also seemed to share the concern, saying that Mr Katyal's arguments would "lead to results that are quite difficult to take" because they would protect American companies from responsibility for even the most serious behavior.
The disputes were directed at the American subsidiary of Swiss Nestle, the world's largest food producer, and commodity trader Cargill, one of the e largest privately owned US company.
The complainants accused the companies of helping and combating human rights violations by actively participating in buying cocoa in Côte d'Ivoire and turning a blind eye to the use of slave labor on farms, despite being aware of practices to keep cocoa prices low.
A federal district court in Los Angeles twice dismissed the lawsuit, most recently in 2017. The court found that the claims were prohibited by a recent Supreme Court decision that made it more difficult for the plaintiff to sue companies in U.S. courts for alleged violations abroad.
The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals 2018 revived the allegations, citing allegations that companies provided "personal expenses" to local farmers to guarantee the cheapest source of cocoa. The 9th circle found that the payments were similar to rebates and that the low price of cocoa was dependent on child slave labor.
The US Chamber of Commerce and other business interests supported the two companies in the case, as did President Donald. The Trump administration.
The Supreme Court in 2013 and 2018 cases restricted the plaintiff's ability to sue companies in US courts under the Alien Tort Statute for foreign human rights violations. But the court did not rule definitively that companies can never be sued under that law.
Since the 2018 decision – a 5-4 decision – the court has shifted further to the right with President Trump's appointment of Conservative judges Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.
A decision will be decided at the end of June.