High court allows bigger award in 1998 embassy bombings case

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Security officers, one wearing a mask, walk in front of the Supreme Court, Thursday, May 14, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The Supreme Court is allowing a bigger award of money to victims of the 1998 bombings by al-Qaida of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Despite the court’s ruling, however, the victims may only ever collect a fraction of the billions of dollars a lower court awarded.

The nearly simultaneous truck bombings at the embassies killed 224 people and injured thousands. They were the first major attacks on U.S. targets by al-Qaida.

The case the Supreme Court ruled in involves lawsuits filed by victims and their families against Sudan. The lawsuits accused the country of causing the bombings by aiding al-Qaida and leader Osama bin Laden, who lived in Sudan in the 1990s.

The more than 500 people involved in the case are mostly foreign citizens, either U.S. government employees or contractors injured in the bombings or relatives of those who died.

A court initially awarded the group more than $10 billion, but an appeals court threw out about $4 billion of the award that was punitive damages.

The Supreme Court said Monday that the appeals court was wrong and that a federal law, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, allows punitive damages in the case. The court reinstated a portion of the $4 billion in punitive damages and sent the case back to the appeals court for additional proceedings.

“Congress was as clear as it could have been when it authorized plaintiffs to seek and win punitive damages” in cases like this one, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the eight justices who participated in the case and were unanimous in their decision.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh didn’t participate in the case. He was involved in the case at a previous stage while he was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

The case has particular relevance now because Sudan’s transitional government is seeking to be removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and settling with the bombing victims is seen as critical to doing so. Getting off the list would allow Sudan, which last year ousted autocrat Omar al-Bashir amid massive public protests, to get loans to rebuild its economy. It would also lift a number of U.S. sanctions that have hurt and isolated the Sudanese economy.

It’s unclear how much the bombing victims might get from the cash-strapped country. But by allowing punitive damages, the Supreme Court gave victims leverage to get a larger settlement.

In a statement, victims called the ruling a “huge win.”

“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. We are hopeful that this soon will lead Sudan to reach a just and equitable resolution with its victims,” their lawyer Matthew D. McGill said in a statement.

Christopher Curran, an attorney for Sudan, said in a statement that the country “looks forward to further proceedings in this continuing litigation, while it remains engaged with the United States in negotiations to normalize the bilateral relationship.”

“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,” Curran said.

The case is Opati v. Sudan, 17-1268.

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