Ackley v. Islamic Republic of Iran

Docket NumberCivil Action 20-cv-621 (BAH)
Decision Date12 August 2022
PartiesDAVID J. ACKLEY, JR. et al., Plaintiffs, v. ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Columbia
MEMORANDUM OPINION

BERYL A. HOWELL CHIEF JUDGE

This action arises out of the bombing, on June 25, 1996, of the Khobar Towers apartment complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia which housed United States military personnel, including the fifty-one service-member plaintiffs in this case. First Amended Compl. (“FAC”) ¶ 1, ECF No. 19; see also Pls.' Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law at 1-2, ECF No. 28. Nineteen U.S. Air Force personnel were killed, and hundreds more were injured. FAC ¶ 1. Also among the total 159 plaintiffs in this case are: (1) eighty-nine family members of the fifty-one service-member plaintiffs; (2) eighteen immediate family members of injured airmen plaintiffs in Schooley v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 17-cv-1376 (BAH), 2019 WL 2717888, at *1 (D.D.C. Jun. 27, 2019); and (3) one immediate family member of an airman whose estate and family were plaintiffs in Heiser v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 466 F.Supp.2d 229 (D.D.C. 2006) (Heiser I) and Rimkus v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 575 F.Supp.2d 181 (D.D.C. 2008). Id. Plaintiffs allege that defendant, the Islamic Republic of Iran (Iran), is liable under the terrorism exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), 28 U.S.C. § 1605A, for “providing material support. . . in carrying out the bombing of Khobar Towers to intimidate and terrorize” plaintiffs. Id. ¶ 186. After complying with FSIA's requirements for service on defendant, see 28 U.S.C. § 1608(a)(4); Return of Service, ECF No. 13, plaintiffs now seek entry of a default judgment against defendant as to liability and damages, see Pls.' Mot. Judicial Notice Prior Related Cases Entry Default J. Liability (“Pls.' Mot. Liability”), ECF No. 24; Pls.' Mot. for Final J. as to Damages (“Pls.' Mot. Damages”), ECF No. 27, since Iran has failed to enter an appearance or otherwise defend against this action, see Clerk's Entry of Default, ECF No. 17. For the reasons detailed below, plaintiffs' motions are granted.

I. BACKGROUND

Several prior decisions of this Court have found defendant liable for the Khobar Towers bombing: Blais v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 459 F.Supp.2d 40 (D.D.C. 2006) (Lamberth, J.); Heiser I, 466 F.Supp.2d at 229 (Lamberth, J.); Rimkus, 750 F.Supp.2d at 163 (Lamberth, J.); Akins v. Islamic Republic of Iran (Akins I), 332 F.Supp.3d 1 (D.D.C. 2018) (Howell, C.J.); Schooley, 2019 WL 2717888 (Howell, C.J.); Aceto v. Islamic Republic of Iran, No. 19-cv-464 (BAH), 2020 WL 619925 (D.D.C. Feb. 7, 2020) (Howell, C.J.); Christie v. Islamic Republic of Iran, No. 19-cv-1289 (BAH), 2020 WL 3606273 (D.D.C. July 2, 2020) (Howell, C.J.); Akins v Islamic Republic of Iran (Akins II), 549 F.Supp.3d 104 (D.D.C. July 16, 2021) (Howell, C.J.); Blank v. Islamic Republic of Iran, No. 19-3645 (BAH), 2021 WL 3021450 (D.D.C. July 17, 2021) (Howell, C.J.).

In Blais and Heiser I, the Court heard evidence and witness testimony. See Blais, 459 F.Supp.2d at 46 n.4; Heiser I, 466 F.Supp.2d at 250. In Heiser I alone, the offering of evidence took 17 days, which included examination of witnesses, including seven expert witnesses. See 466 F.Supp.2d at 250.[1] Rimkus, Akins, and Schooley concluded that judicial notice of the findings of fact in Blais and Heiser I was appropriate, see Rimkus, 750 F.Supp.2d at 167; Akins I, 332 F.Supp.3d at 9; Schooley, 2019 WL 2717888, at *2, and the plaintiffs here request that this Court “take judicial notice of the related records and proceedings from other cases before the District Court for the District of Columbia, where Iran has already been found liable for this same attack” and for providing material support and resources to carry out the Khobar Towers bombing. Pls.' Mem. Supp. Mot. Judicial Notice Prior Related Cases and for Entry of Default J. as to Liability (“Pls.' Mem. Judicial Notice”) at 6-8, ECF No. 24.

Rule 201 of the Federal Rules of Evidence authorizes a court to “judicially notice” adjudicative facts that are “not subject to reasonable dispute because” they “can be accurately and readily determined from sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned.” FED. R. EVID. 201(b).[2] Rule 201 is used frequently to judicially notice factual evidence developed in other FSIA proceedings “involving the same conduct by the same defendants,” Akins I, 332 F.Supp.3d at 11, “even when those proceedings have taken place in front of a different judge,” Foley v. Syrian Arab Republic, 249 F.Supp.3d 186, 191 (D.D.C. 2017) (citing Brewer v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 664 F.Supp.2d 43, 54 (D.D.C. 2009)). This avoids “the formality of having that evidence reproduced.” Harrison v. Republic of Sudan, 882 F.Supp.2d 23, 31 (D.D.C. 2012) (quoting Taylor v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 811 F.Supp.2d 1, 7 (D.D.C. 2011)); see also Oveissi v. Islamic Republic of Iran (Oveissi II), 879 F.Supp.2d 44, 50 (D.D.C. 2012) (finding courts permitted “in subsequent related cases to rely upon the evidence presented in earlier litigation”); Estate of Botvin v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 873 F.Supp.2d 232, 237 (D.D.C. 2012) (taking “judicial notice of the evidence presented in the earlier cases). Taking judicial notice of prior findings “does not conclusively establish the facts found in those cases in the later FSIA case. Foley, 249 F.Supp.3d at 191. Rather, “based on judicial notice of the evidence presented in the earlier cases[,] . . . courts may reach their own independent findings of fact.” Anderson v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 753 F.Supp.2d 68, 75 (D.D.C. 2010); see also Rimkus, 750 F.Supp.2d at 172. In fact, courts in FSIA litigation have adopted a middle-ground approach that permits courts in subsequent related cases to rely upon the evidence presented in earlier litigation-without necessitating the formality of having that evidence reproduced-to reach their own, independent findings of fact in the cases before them.” Rimkus, 750 F.Supp.2d at 172.[3]

This Court is persuaded that this approach is both “efficient and sufficiently protective of the absent defendant['s] interests,” Akins I, 332 F.Supp.3d at 11, and will therefore grant plaintiffs' request to take judicial notice of the evidence presented in Christie, 2020 WL 3606273, Aceto, 2020 WL 619925, Schooley, 2019 WL 2717888, Akins I, 332 F.Supp.3d 1, Valencia v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 774 F.Supp.2d 1 (D.D.C. 2010) (Lamberth, J.), Rimkus, 575 F.Supp.2d at 181, Heiser I, 466 F.Supp.2d 229, and Blais, 459 F.Supp.2d 40. See Akins I, 332 F.Supp.3d at 11 (stating that factual evidence developed in other cases “involving the same conduct by the same defendants is . . . admissible and may be relied upon in this case.”).

The evidence regarding the Khobar Towers bombing is summarized below, followed by an overview of the procedural history of this case.

A. The Attack on Khobar Towers

The Khobar Towers residential complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia “housed the coalition forces,” including the U.S. military forces, “charged with monitoring compliance with [United Nations] security council resolutions.” Blais, 459 F.Supp.2d at 47. About 10 minutes before 10:00 pm on June 25, 1996, “a large gasoline tanker truck pulled up” and parked “alongside the perimeter wall of the Khobar Towers complex.” Heiser I, 466 F.Supp.2d at 252; see also Compl. ¶ 128. Security guards near the top of one of the towers, Building 131, “started to give warnings about the unusual vehicle location,” but the truck exploded “within about 15 minutes.” Heiser I, 466 F.Supp.2d at 252; see also FAC ¶ 175. The blast “sheared off the face of Building 131,” Heiser I, 466 F.Supp.2d at 252, and “shattered windows more than half a mile away,” Compl. ¶ 130. Subsequent “investigation determined that the force of the explosion was the equivalent of 20,000 pounds of TNT. The U.S. Department of Defense said that it was the largest non-nuclear explosion ever up to that time.” Heiser I, 466 F.Supp.2d at 252.

B. Defendant Iran's Role

Iran “has been designated a state sponsor of terrorism” by the U.S. Department of State “since January 19, 1984.” Blais, 459 F.Supp.2d at 47; see also, e.g., Fritz v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 320 F.Supp.3d 48, 77 (D.D.C. 2018); U.S. Dep't of State, State Sponsors of Terrorism, https://www.state.gov/j/ct/list/c14151.htm (last visited July 30, 2022). Prior proceedings have found that Iran planned and supported the Khobar Towers bombing.[4] Both the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme leader of Iran at the time, and the Minister of Intelligence and Security “approved” the attack. Heiser I, 466 F.Supp.2d at 252. The truck bomb used was “assembled” at a base in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley “jointly operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (“IRGC”) and by the terrorist organization known as Hezbollah,” with the individuals who carried out the bombing calling themselves “Saudi Hezbollah.” Id.

These conclusions are based in part on the testimony of four key expert witnesses in Blais and Heiser I Louis Freeh, who was director of the FBI at the time of the bombing, and Dale Watson, then deputy counterterrorism chief of the FBI, testified in Heiser I based on their oversight of the the FBI's “massive and thorough investigation of the attack, using over 250 agents.” Id.; see also id. at 260-62. “Based on that investigation, an Alexandria, Virginia, grand jury returned an indictment . . . against 13 identified members of the pro-Iran Saudi Hezbollah organization.” Id. at 252. During its investigation, the FBI interviewed six members of Saudi Hezbollah who “admitted to the FBI their complicity in the attack on Khobar Towers, and admitted that senior officials in the Iranian government...

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