Saudi Arabia v. Nelson
507 U.S. 349 (1993)

  • Nelson was a US citizen who was recruited to work for a hospital in Saudi Arabia.
  • After repeatedly warning hospital officials about health violations at the hospital, he was arrested and tortured by the Saudi government.
  • Eventually, Nelson was released and went back to the US, where he sued the Saudi government.
    • Saudi Arabia argued that US courts did not have jurisdiction to hear any claims because of sovereign immunity.
    • Nelson argued that the claims were in relation to his job at the hospital, which was a commercial activity and not a public act, and were therefore not covered by sovereign immunity based on the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA) (28 U.S.C. 1602).
      • FSIA says that foreign States can be sued in US Courts for acts taken "in connection with a commercial activity" that have "a direct effect in the US."
  • The US Supreme Court found for Saudi Arabia and dismissed the claim.
    • The US Supreme Court found that the claims were not sufficiently "based upon a commercial activity" and so were not covered by FSIA.
      • "The conduct boils down to abuse of power of its police by the Saudi government, and however monstrous such abuse undoubtedly may be, a foreign state's exercise of the power of its police has long been understood for purposes of the restrictive theory as peculiarly sovereign in nature.
    • The Court found that since there was no FSIA exception, there was no jurisdiction to hear the case because of sovereign immunity.
  • In a dissent it was argued that the hospital called in the Saudi police to silence a whistleblower. If they had called in some private security guards to beat up Nelson, that would surely be covered by FSIA, so what was the difference?