The US Supreme Court stopped American sailors injured in the deadly 2000 al Qaeda bombing of the Navy destroyer USS Cole from collecting $314.7 million in damages from the government of Sudan for its alleged role in the attack.
In a 8-1 ruling, the justices overturned a lower court’s decision allowing the sailors to collect damages from banks holding Sudanese assets. The decision represents a major victory for Sudan, which denies providing any support to al Qaeda for the attack in Yemen.
Sudan was backed by President Donald Trump’s administration in the case.
In the ruling, the justices agreed with Sudan the lawsuit was not properly initiated in violation of US law because claims were submitted in 2010 to the African country’s embassy in Washington rather than to its minister of foreign affairs in Khartoum.
“Sudan is pleased with the decision,” said Christopher Curran, representing Sudan’s government. “No one disputes sailors on the Cole were victims of a brutal terrorist attack. But Sudan vehemently disputes any culpability in that attack and is determined to clear its name.”
A lawyer for the sailors, Kannon Shanmugam, expressed disappointment. “The fight for justice for the Cole victims and their families continues,” Shanmugam said.
A lower court levied damages by default because Sudan did not defend itself against allegations it gave support to the Islamist militant group.
The October 12, 2000, attack killed 17 sailors and wounded more than three dozen others when two men in a small boat detonated explosives alongside the Navy guided-missile destroyer refuelling in the port of Aden, blasting a gaping hole in its hull. The vessel was repaired and later returned to full active duty.
Fifteen injured sailors and three spouses sued Sudan’s government in 2010 in Washington. At issue was whether mailing the lawsuit to Sudan’s embassy violated the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a US law governing when foreign governments may be sued in American courts.
Writing for the court’s majority, conservative Justice Samuel Alito said other countries’ foreign ministers must be reached where they normally work, “not a far flung outpost the minister may at most occasionally visit.”
‘RULE OF LAW’
Alito expressed sympathy towards the sailors, writing the ruling may seem like it is enforcing an empty formality.
“There are circumstances in which the rule of law demands adherence to strict requirements even when the equities of a particular case may seem to point in the opposite direction,” Alito said, adding the case had sensitive diplomatic implications.
Alone in his dissent, conservative Justice Clarence Thomas said allowing litigants to send notices of lawsuits to embassies would comply with both US and international law.
The Trump administration told the justices a ruling against Sudan could impact how the US government is treated by foreign courts because the United States rejects judicial notices delivered to its embassies.
The sailors were highly critical of the administration’s position. “Particularly given this administration’s solicitude for veterans, its decision to side with a state sponsor of terrorism, against men and women seeking to recover from grievous injuries suffered in the service of our country, is inexplicable and distressing,” they said in a legal brief to the court.
In 2012, a federal judge in Washington issued a default judgement of $314.7 million against Sudan. Individual plaintiffs were to receive between $4 million and $30 million each.
A separate judge in New York later ordered certain banks to turn over assets they held for Sudan to partially satisfy the judgement. The 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York upheld those orders in 2015.