Slavery Reparations Effort May Have Its Day in Court

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:20 PM EDT

( - Should the descendants of black slaves be paid reparations by companies that may have profited from the slave trade? Yes, according to a New York activist who is poised to file a lawsuit in federal district court on Tuesday.

The class action lawsuit by plaintiff Deadria Farmer-Paellman will reportedly allege that Aetna, Inc., CSX Transportation and Fleet Bank were "unjustly enriched" by "a system that enslaved, tortured, starved and exploited human beings."

Two years ago, Farmer-Paellman exposed Aetna's financial ties to the institution of slavery, resulting in a public apology from the insurance giant. Aetna, founded in 1853, had insured Southern slave owners against the death of their slaves.

Farmer-Paellman is not alone in her crusade for reparations. A number of prominent black activists, legislators and lawyers have called for such payments in order to make up for alleged disparities in employment, health care, income and education. Among those supporting the idea is Johnnie Cochran, O.J. Simpson's defense attorney; Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

Aetna and CSX downplayed the chances of a reparations lawsuit succeeding and defended their respective outreach efforts to black Americans.

"We do not believe a court would permit a lawsuit over events which, however regrettable, occurred hundreds of years ago," said Fred Laberge, Aetna assistant vice president of public relations. "These issues in no way reflect Aetna today.

"Over the past 20 years," Laberge continued, "Aetna has invested more than $36 million in the African American community. Our company has embraced diversity, and we are proud of our record of employing a diverse workforce and supporting diverse causes."

CSX Transportation issued a blunt reply to the pending lawsuit.

"The lawsuit to be filed in federal court in New York City against CSX and other corporations demanding financial reparations is wholly without merit and should be dismissed," read a written statement issued by the company.

"The claimants named CSX because slave labor was used to construct portions of some U.S. rail lines under the political and legal system in place more than a century before CSX was formed in 1990," the company complained. "Courtrooms are the wrong setting for this issue."

Reparations critics have said the movement is based more on politics and monetary greed than on legitimate legal claims. Washington, D.C. legal scholar Mark Behrens said the lawsuit is unlikely to succeed as a legal claim.

"What standing do the current plaintiffs have to sue for damages that allegedly may have occurred 150 years ago?" asked Behrens, who is a partner in the law firm Hook Hardy & Bacon.

In a class action lawsuit, Behrens explained, plaintiffs must show they have been injured, that they have suffered common injuries, and that they are representative of the people on whose behalf they are suing.

"For the people who may be alive today and are descendents [of slaves], there just seems to be a lot of threshold questions they may have to meet," said Behrens. "Despite the obvious inhumanities of slavery, ... I think one of the problems will be challenging a system that was wrong but at the time was legal."

Plaintiffs will face other challenges in bringing their case, said Behrens, including statutes of limitation (long since passed) and the difficulty of showing a common injury suffered by slave descendants.

"Whatever claims they are alleging, are too remote or attenuated from the direct conduct of slavery to be able to have a legal claim," said Behrens, who predicted the suit would be dismissed or, perhaps, settled out of court.

Supporters of black reparations have been buoyed by the successful effort of Holocaust survivors and their heirs to get reparations from companies that benefited from the forced labor of Jews in the 1930s and '40s.

The black reparations movement itself has had a few non-financial success stories so far. In addition to Aetna's 2000 apology, a few state legislatures have passed resolutions calling for reparations, as has the United Nations conference on racism, which was held in South Africa in September 2001. Conyers has introduced reparations legislation during the past decade, but Congress has never voted on the bill.

See Earlier Stories:

Slavery Reparations a Main Topic at CBC Conference

Slavery Discussions Hit a Snag at Racism Conference

Paying for Slavery: How Could it be Done?

Paying for Slavery: Why Now?

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