U.S. District Judge John Bates entered a final judgment on liability yesterday for a group of foreign nationals and their families seeking $12 billion in damages against Iran for terrorist acts in the 1980s.
The case represented the first test of whether the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 offered a federal cause of action to non-U.S. citizen family members of individuals who were killed while working for the U.S. government.
In an opinion (PDF) published yesterday, Bates found that non-U.S. citizen family members are not covered within the text of the act, regardless of any legislative intent to include them. However, he did find that they could be covered under local laws, in this case in the District of Columbia, in the same way U.S. citizens could sue for terrorism-related damages before a federal cause of action was available.
The 1996 terrorism exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act opened the door to federal civil suits against state-sponsors of terrorism by U.S. citizens. The 2008 act allowed foreign nationals working for the U.S. government to also sue in a U.S. federal court, but it was unclear whether that law also applied to non-U.S. citizen families of victims.
Lead plaintiffs' counsel, Crowell & Moring partner Stuart Newberger, said the ruling allows all of the plaintiffs to move to the next stage - determining and collecting individual damages.
"It wasn't until three years ago that these plaintiffs could even come to court and sue Iran," Newberger said. "[Bates] has now resolved some very tricky and challenging legal issues about what substantive law will apply."
The case stems from two terrorism attacks in 1983 and 1984 at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. The plaintiffs in this case are 58 individuals who were working for the U.S. government in the embassy at the time and 255 of their immediate family members. All but one of the workers and the majority of family members are foreign nationals.
Subsequent investigations and court proceedings laid blame for the attacks with the Iranian government. Iran has never participated in court proceedings.
Newberger is also plaintiffs' counsel in a separate action in Washington federal court filed by U.S. citizens victims and their families, Dammarell et al v. Islamic Republic of Iran. The plaintiffs in that case are seeking to collect on a judgment also entered by Bates.