CHICAGO – A federal appeals court on Wednesday rejected most claims by slave descendants that they deserve reparations from some of the nation's biggest insurers, banks and transportation companies.
The three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court ruling that slave descendants have no standing to sue for reparations based on injustices suffered by ancestors and that the statute of limitations ran out more than a century ago.
But the panel did keep alive a smaller portion of the suit, claiming that major U.S. corporations may be guilty of consumer fraud if they hid past ties to slavery from their customers.
The opinion, written by Judge Richard A. Posner, said that "statutes of limitations would be toothless" if descendants could collect damages for wrongs against their ancestors.
"A person whose ancestor had been wronged a thousand years ago could sue on the ground that it was a continuing wrong and he is one of the victims," the court said. It said statutes of limitations could be extended in some cases but not for acts committed 100 years ago.
The panel also said the descendants lacked standing to sue because their links to the slaves were distant.
It said the "causal chain is too long and has too many weak links for a court to be able to find that the defendants' conduct harmed the plaintiffs at all, let alone in an amount that could be estimated without the wildest speculation."
The lawsuit was a consolidation of 10 suits filed around the country and moved to Chicago. Slave descendants claim that big American corporations — including such Wall Street giants as JP Morgan Chase & Co., Aetna Inc. and Bank of America — profited from slavery and should pay. It says the companies insured and transported slaves and even issued loans to slaveholders so they could buy slaves.
U.S. District Judge Charles R. Norgle Sr. had dismissed all the claims. He found that the descendants lacked standing and that the statute of limitations had expired, and that the issue was political and shouldn't be worked out in a court.
While largely upholding Norgle's decision, the appeals court kept alive the consumer protection claims.
Descendants claim they have been injured by buying products from companies that concealed the fact that they or their predecessor companies somehow benefited from slavery.
In allowing the consumer-protection claims, the appeals court said it knew of no law saying a seller has "a general duty to disclose every discreditable fact about himself." But it added that sellers who misrepresent a product, fearing the loss of buyers who would object to it, are guilty of fraud.
Bruce Afran, an attorney for the descendants, said that "we have a very fair chance of prevailing" on the fraud claims.
He said some banks had filed false information with regulators that could be used as evidence in arguing they were guilty of consumer fraud.
Defense attorney Owen C. Pell did not return a message left at his office. Defense attorney Alan S. Madans declined to comment.