The grandson of an Iranian general assassinated in Paris in 1984 was awarded $300 million in punitive damages yesterday by a Washington federal judge.
Amir Reza Oveissi, who lives in the United States, sued the Iranian government in 2003 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, accusing officials of orchestrating General Gholam Ali Oveissi's death. He won a judgment of $7.5 million in solatium damages in 2011, and then sued for punitive damages under the state-sponsored terrorism exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth issued an order yesterday awarding Oveissi $300 million in punitive damages, concluding in his opinion (PDF) that "defendant Iran must be punished to the fullest extent legally possible for the violent assassination of plaintiff's [grand]father."
According to court filings in the case, the general was a high-ranking official in Iran leading up to the 1979 revolution. After the revolution, he fled to the United States with his family, where his grandson was born. The family then moved to Paris, but in 1984 the general was "gunned down in a busy street," according to Lamberth's opinion. The family moved to Africa and later settled back in the United States.
The lawsuit was initially dismissed. The court had ruled that Oveissi could only bring a claim under California law, since that was where he was born. Under California law, the court concluded, there wasn't a claim that Oveissi could bring for wrongful death. On appeal, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that the claims should be brought under French law, since that was where the general was living at the time of his death.
Evaluating Oveissi's claims under French law, the court found in 2010 that Iran could be held liable. In 2011, Lamberth awarded him $7.5 million in solatium damages, but noted that under the version of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act in effect during the time the case was under consideration, he couldn't recover punitive damages. Oveissi filed a claim in May 2011 to recover damages under the revised law, which allowed for punitive damages.
Lamberth noted that as recently as May the court had awarded $300 million to another family in a state-sponsored terrorism case against Iran. In light of previous case law and "the extreme depravity of Iran's acts," Lamberth found that it was an appropriate amount.
In an interview today, a lead counsel for Oveissi, James Spertus of the Law Office of James W. Spertus in Los Angeles, said that the ruling "was a spectacular accomplishment."
"To have a judgment that sends such a strong message to a terrorist nation that their terrorist acts are going to be punished is incredibly satisfying for the family," he said. Firm attorney Ezra Landes served as co-lead counsel.
Iran has never participated in the case.
Collecting large money judgments against Iran has historically proved challenging. In his opinion, Lamberth acknowledged that pursuing damages awards "may prove tremendously difficult," a point he and other judges have made in similar rulings in the past. Spertus said it will be tough, but that the firm plans to aggressively go after Iranian assets worldwide.
"The judgment has no teeth if Iran views it as an uncollectable piece of paper," he said. "We're going to be evaluating the options and hopefully became a major thorn in the side of Iran."