The District of Columbia Court of Appeals affirmed (PDF) the dismissal Friday of a lawsuit against Unity Resources Group LLC, a private security company accused of fatally shooting an Iraqi woman in 2007. The plaintiff, the woman's father, hadn't properly served the company, the court found, but it left the door open for him to refile his complaint.
Jalal Askander's daughter, Genevia Jalal Antranick, was traveling by car in Baghdad in October 2007 when private security guards working for Unity Resources Group allegedly opened fire. Askander has been trying to sue Unity Resources Group and the primary contractor that hired them, RTI International, a North Carolina nonprofit, since 2008.
The case began in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, but was transferred to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina – the judge at the time thought it was a better location – in February 2010. Neither court addressed head-on whether a court in Washington would have jurisdiction over Unity Resources Group.
The North Carolina judge dismissed the federal claims. Askander, represented by solo practitioner Paul Wolf, filed a new complaint in August 2010 in District of Columbia Superior Court. The trial judge dismissed the case, finding that the companies’ ties to the city were too minimal to establish jurisdiction.
The three-judge appellate panel heard oral arguments on Nov. 7. In addition to considering jurisdiction, the judges also focused on the fact that Wolf failed to properly serve Unity Resources Group.
In the two-page opinion, the judges wrote that Askander’s lawsuit against Unity Resources Group failed the moment he didn’t properly serve the company in the District; a representative was served in Virginia. The dismissal was without prejudice, meaning Askander can refile his complaint and serve Unity Resources Group “as he indicated at oral argument that he would,” the judges wrote.
The appellate judges reserved judgment on whether the trial judge properly dismissed RTI International on the grounds that Washington was a more inconvenient forum than North Carolina, since the court assumed the issue would come up again for new review once Askander refiled.
The court said that the trial judge would again review Askander’s argument that there is jurisdiction to sue Unity Resources Group in Washington when he refiles. If the trial judge finds personal jurisdiction over Unity Resources Group, the appellate judges said the trial judge would then need to decide if it still makes sense to dismiss RTI International. If that happened, Askander would likely sue RTI International in North Carolina, meaning there would be two trials in separate jurisdictions on the same issue.
Wolf, who has argued that jurisdiction exists because both Unity Resources Group and RTI International have offices in the District, wasn’t immediately available for comment.
Lead counsel for Unity Resources Group, Locke Lord partner Kevin Walsh, said that, “The decision is plainly correct with respect to the ruling on failure to serve and if Mr. Askander refiles we’ll evaluate an appropriate response.”
RTI International’s lead counsel, LeClairRyan attorney Leslie Paul Machado, said in an e-mail that, "Both the DC federal court and the Superior Court exhaustively looked at this case and each independently concluded that it has no connection to the District. We are confident that, when it is examined a third time, that will be the result."
Associate Judges Anna Blackburne-Rigsby and Kathryn Oberly, and Senior Judge John Steadman heard the case.