WASHINGTON – Victims of the 1998 bombings by al-Qaida of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania are entitled to billions of dollars in punitive damages from Sudan, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The bombings killed 224 people and injured thousands, and courts determined long ago that Sudan enabled them by letting Osama bin Laden operate from the country and providing passports to al-Qaida members.
A judge in Washington awarded more than $10 billion in damages, of which $4.3 billion was for punitive damages.
The question before the court concerned a 2008 amendment to the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which generally protects foreign governments from lawsuits, but also details the exceptions to such protection. Acts of terrorism are one such exception.
But a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 2017 said Congress had not been specific when authorizing retrospective lawsuits that punitive damages were allowed.
In a unanimous decision written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the Supreme Court disagreed. (Justice Brett Kavanaugh recused himself, presumably because he had been involved with the case while on the D.C. Circuit.)
While perhaps not explicit, “Congress was as clear as it could have been when it authorized plaintiffs to seek and win punitive damages for past conduct” by amending the law to allow suits for past acts of terrorism, Gorsuch wrote.
Damages for the attacks, in which 12 Americans died, were awarded by default, because Sudan did not defend itself in the initial proceedings. It retained lawyers to fight the punitive damages award, however.
“Because retroactive damages of the punitive variety raise special constitutional concerns, Sudan says, we should create and apply a new rule requiring Congress to provide a super-clear statement when it wishes to authorize their use,” Gorsuch wrote.
“We decline this invitation.”
The Department of Justice had endorsed the claim for punitive damages.
Most of the more than 500 people involved in the case are foreign citizens who were either U.S. government employees, contractors injured in the bombings or survivors of those killed.
“It’s hard to imagine an act more deserving of punitive damages, and we are deeply gratified that the Supreme Court has validated the right of our clients to receive this measure of compensation,” Matthew McGill, a lawyer for the Kenya victims, said in a statement. “We are hopeful that this soon will lead Sudan to reach a just and equitable resolution with its victims.”
Sudan responded to the decision by noting that the damages were awarded under federal and state law, and that state law claims “are subject to further litigation.”
“Sudan looks forward to further proceedings in this continuing litigation, while it remains engaged with the United States in negotiations to normalize the bilateral relationship,” said the statement sent by lawyer Christopher Curran. “As always, Sudan expresses sympathy for the victims of the acts of terrorism at issue, but reaffirms that it was not involved in any wrongdoing in connection with those acts.”