Three large U.S. companies were named in a lawsuit filed Tuesday on behalf of black Americans descended from slaves, the first potential class action seeking reparations from firms for profiting from slavery.
Aetna Inc., CSX Corp. and FleetBoston Financial Corp. were named in the lawsuit filed in federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y., by Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, 36, in the latest step by some blacks to get compensation for what their ancestors suffered as slaves.
Aetna and CSX said slavery was a regrettable chapter in U.S. history but the events in question occurred so long ago that a courtroom was not the proper venue to decide on reparations.
Attorneys said 12 other companies would be getting letters in the coming days requesting a dialogue on a settlement, and that as many as 1,000 unidentified corporations may have profited from slavery.
The complaint did not contain a monetary damage figure, but did estimate the current value of slaves' unpaid labor as $1.4 trillion. The gross domestic product of the United States at the end of 2001 was $10.25 trillion.
"This is a case about wealth built on the back and from the sweat of African slaves," said plaintiff attorney Roger Wareham. "We expect those companies that are targeted to stand up."
Wareham said any damages collected would be put into a fund to improve health, education and housing opportunities for African Americans.
Advocates of reparations for slavery say the descendants of slaves are being hurt economically and sociologically by their ancestors' bondage.
Those who argue against compensation say, among other things, that it happened so long ago that reparations would be punishing people who had nothing to do with the practice of slavery.
According to the lawsuit, FleetBoston is the successor to Providence Bank, which was founded by Rhode Island businessman John Brown. Brown owned ships that embarked on several slaving voyages, and the suit says FleetBoston lent substantial sums to Brown, thus financing and profiting from his slave trade.
FleetBoston also collected customs fees from ships transporting slaves, thus profiting further, the suit says.
FleetBoston did not return a call seeking comment.
The suit alleges Aetna's predecessor insured slaveholders against the loss of their human chattel. Aetna knew the horrors of slave life as evident in a rider through which the company declined to make payments on slaves who were lynched, were worked to death or committed suicide.
Hartford, Conn.-based Aetna, the No. 1 U.S. life and health insurer, said in early March it was considering making an unprecedented public apology and restitution payment over profit it made from insuring slaves in America 150 years ago.
On Tuesday, an Aetna spokesman said: "We have not been served with a lawsuit. We do not believe a court would permit a lawsuit over events which, however regrettable, occurred hundreds of years ago."
Richmond, Va.-based CSX is a successor in interest to numerous predecessor railroad lines that were constructed or run, at least in part, by slave labor, according to the suit.
CSX said in a statement that although slavery was a tragic chapter in U.S. history, the lawsuit was without merit.
"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 1980," the company said. "The courtrooms are the wrong setting for this issue."
The lawsuit seeks a jury trial, the appointment of an independent historic commission, restitution of the descendants' slave labor, disgorgement of illicit profit and compensatory and punitive damages to be determined at trial.
Plaintiff Farmer-Paellmann said that she went to law school with the goal of suing for damages as a result of slavery.
She said as many as 60 companies had cooperated with her five years of research and provided documents showing how they had assisted the institution of slavery.
Lawyer Ed Fagan said that a series of Holocaust lawsuits settled for $8 billion had blazed the legal trail for the slavery action.
In New York Stock Exchange trading, Aetna shares closed up 34 cents at $37.68, CSX shares up 57 cents at 37.46 and FleetBoston up 23 cents at $35.37.
Associated Press was used in compiling this report.