Generally when we cover the American civil justice system on this blog, it is with respect to cases in which residents of this country alone have been physically, emotionally, or mentally harmed. This article, however, addresses a number of consolidated cases involving 284 plaintiffs–citizens of the United States, Kenya, and Tanzania–in a suit against the Republic of Sudan in North Africa and Iran in Western Asia (and various governmental bodies within those nations).
These individuals and their families have filed suit against Iran and Sudan for their roles in “supporting, funding, and otherwise carrying out” “simultaneous suicide bombings” at embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that “killed hundreds of people and injured over a thousand” in August 1998. This is one of the first cases filed under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA)–a 1976 law that establishes whether or not a foreign state may be sued in an American court–to result in a major payout.
In this instance, the Washington, D.C. district court awarded the 284 plaintiffs $8.6 billion in damages against Sudan and Iran. Just over $5 billion of this total comprises compensatory damages, but $3.1 billion has been allocated for pain and suffering, a form of non-economic damages whose purpose is to act as a deterrent against harmful acts. The judge who heard the case beginning in 2011, John D. Bates, wrote in his recent opinion, “Scores were murdered, hundreds of families were torn asunder, and thousands of lives were irreparably damaged. The need for deterrence here is tremendous.”
Judge Bates refers in his decision to Iran “aid[ing], abet[ing], and conspir[ing] with Hezbollah, Osama bin Laden, and al Qaeda” and argues that before meeting with “Iranian officials and agents, bin Laden and al Qaeda did not possess the technical expertise required to carry out the embassy bombings.” He blames Sudan for supporting and protecting terrorists. This is a landmark decision, and one that provides a precedent: the American civil justice system is capable of providing redress not only to its own citizens and residents, but also to victims of state-abetted terrorism in other countries.
Recently, the FSIA has been invoked by Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Plaintiffs argued that Saudi leaders had provided funds for al-Qaeda indirectly, but the FSIA effectively prevented the suit from happening. The FSIA similarly prevented a lawsuit against the Vatican in a long-running sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. This case represents a break from those earlier cases, one enabled at least partially by an addition to the law that allows federal jurisdiction in suits like these.
Judge Bates concluded his opinion movingly, writing that the suicide bombings “shattered the lives of all plaintiffs” and that each of these people “still feel[s] the horrific effects of that awful day. Damages alone cannot fully compensate people whose lives have been torn apart; instead, they offer only a helping hand. But that is the very least that these plaintiffs are owed. Hence, it is what this court will facilitate.” America’s civil justice system now has international reach, including the ability to compensate individuals when harmed or killed by terrorists whose work is sponsored or otherwise enabled by foreign governments. This means that financial institutions that facilitate the financing of terrorism are subject to civil liability.