The chief of the Iranian armed forces was assassinated on a Paris street in 1984, and now the man’s grandson wants the Iranian government to pay up for the alleged state-sponsored terrorist act. He is seeking punitive damages in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
In 2007, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth dismissed Amir Reza Oveissi’s wrongful death complaint, citing a lack of jurisdiction. Oveissi appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit heard argument today—at least from one side. There were no lawyers representing Iran, creating an "odd posture," remarked Judge Judith Rogers in court.
Oveissi, a native of California who will be 30 in May, was not living in the United States when his grandfather, Gholam Ali Oveissi, was fatally shot. He was in Paris, although he was not at the scene of the shooting on Rue de Passy. Oveissi’s grandfather was not a U.S. citizen.
At oral argument, Rogers and Judge Merrick Garland, sitting with Judge Janice Rogers Brown, explored whether French law takes precedence. “It’s not a question of a right to recover. It’s a question of which law applies,” Garland said. Lamberth had found that the grandfather’s nationality and his residence in Paris controlled the case.
Oveissi’s appellate lawyer, James Spertus of Los Angeles, argued today that the shooting intentionally and directly caused emotional distress to immediate family members, including his client, a U.S. citizen. Spertus said California law controls.
Under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Congress created an exception to foreign sovereign immunity in allowing a plaintiff to seek punitive damages from a foreign state for injury or death stemming from, among other things, an act of torture. The United States has considered Iran a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984.
A group called Islamic Jihad took responsibility for killing Oveissi’s grandfather. Lamberth said in court papers that Islamic Jihad was funded and controlled by Iran through its intelligence arm, the Iranian Ministry of Information and Security.
But Lamberth noted in dismissing the complaint that Oveissi’s grandfather himself could not have pursued a claim under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act had he survived the shooting.
Oveissi’s “effort to hold Iran accountable for its sponsorship of terrorist crimes reflects great steadfastness of character, and the court commends his courage in pursuing this litigation,” Lamberth wrote in his opinion. The judge found that Iran is culpable in the “brutal murder” of Oveissi’s grandfather. “Sadly, however, damages are unavailable to plaintiff under the laws of the United States,” the judge wrote.