RICHMOND, Va. — Relatives of the 17 sailors killed in the 2000 bombing of the Navy destroyer USS Cole are asking for the right to seek emotional-distress claims against the Republic of Sudan, which they say provided financial support and safe harbor for Al Qaeda terrorists.
An attorney representing 59 relatives yesterday asked a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to overturn a lower court’s ruling that barred the families from seeking punitive damages under state law.
Andrew Hall also asked that the panel order the judge to reconsider the case in light of a federal terrorism-victims’ compensation law that passed in 2008, allowing for such awards.
“The general rule is that if there’s a new law that passes during an appeal, the plaintiffs can take advantage of the new law,’’ Hall said in an interview after the hearing.
At issue, he said, is what effect the earlier ruling has on the case.
US District Judge Robert Doumar in Norfolk had awarded 33 family members a judgment of $8 million plus interest in compensatory damages to be paid from seized Sudanese assets in 2007, but dismissed their claims for personal suffering.
Doumar ruled in 2007 that the federal Death on the High Seas Act allowed him to award the families compensation for the sailors’ lost wages and earning potential, not for emotional distress caused by their loved ones’ deaths. With interest, that award has risen to $13.4 million. But the families say they’re also entitled to punitive damages because the terrorists inflicted pain and suffering, and the Death on the High Seas Act doesn’t prevent victims’ families from seeking emotional-distress claims under Virginia law.
The Sudanese government has not filed any court documents and hasn’t responded otherwise to the legal action.
US Department of Justice attorney Lewis Yelin argued yesterday on behalf of the US government that the Death on the High Seas Act provides the exclusive legal remedy for the families’ claims, superseding both maritime treaties and state laws.
He also said the families’ original case didn’t meet the requirements to proceed under the 2008 law.
The government is weighing in on the litigation to defend the broader interests of the United States, which Yelin said has a stake in how its laws are interpreted.