Peterson v. Islamic Republic of Iran

Decision Date30 May 2003
Docket NumberNo. CIV.A. 01-2684(RCL).,No. CIV.A. 01-2094(RCL).,CIV.A. 01-2094(RCL).,CIV.A. 01-2684(RCL).
Citation264 F.Supp.2d 46
PartiesDeborah D. PETERSON, Personal Representative of the Estate of James C. Knipple, et al., Plaintiffs, v. The ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN, et al., Defendants. Joseph and Marie Boulos, Personal Representatives of the Estate of Jeffrey Joseph Boulos, et al., Plaintiffs, v. The Islamic Republic of Iran, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Columbia

Robert Peter Feeney, Gaithersburg, MD, Thomas Fortune Fay, Washington, DC, Joseph Peter Drennan, Alexandria, VA, Anthony J. LaSpada, Tampa, FL, Karen Maureen Clarke, Washington, DC, Allen Louis Rothenberg, Philadelphia, PA, Jane Carol Norman, Ferris Ridgely Bond, Bond & Norman, PLLC, Steven R. Perles, Washington, DC, for Plaintiffs.

Robert Peter Feeney, Gaithersburg, MD, Joseph Peter Drennan, Alexandria, VA, Anthony J. LaSpada, Tampa, FL, Kay Maureen Clarke, Washington, DC, Allen Louis Rothenberg, Philadelphia, PA, Jane Carol Norman, Ferris Ridgely Bond, Bond & Norman, PLLC, Washington, DC, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

LAMBERTH, District Judge.

These actions arise from the most deadly state-sponsored terrorist attack made against American citizens prior to September 11, 2001: the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon on October 23, 1983. In the early morning hours of that day, 241 American servicemen were murdered in their sleep by a suicide bomber. On that day, an unspeakable horror invaded the lives of those who survived the attack and the family members whose loved ones had been stolen from them. The memory of that horror continues to this day.

On March 17-18, 2003, this Court conducted a bench trial to determine the liability of the defendants for this inhuman act. Having reviewed the extensive evidence presented during that trial by both lay and expert witnesses, the Court has determined that the plaintiffs have established their right to obtain judicial relief against the defendants. The Court's findings of fact and conclusions of law are set forth below.

I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The plaintiffs in these two actions are family members of the 241 deceased servicemen (hereafter, "the servicemen") and the injured survivors of the attack. Plaintiffs have brought these actions in their own right, as administrators of the estates of the servicemen, and on behalf of the servicemen's heirs-at-law. All decedents and injured survivors of the attack were serving in the U.S. armed forces at the time of their injuries or death. All plaintiffs are nationals of the United States.1

On October 3 and December 28, 2001, plaintiffs filed separate complaints with this Court. The complaints included statutory claims for wrongful death and common-law claims for battery, assault, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, all resulting from an act of state-sponsored terrorism. Plaintiffs sought relief in the form of compensatory and punitive damages. Although defendants were served with the two complaints on May 6 and July 17, 2002, defendants failed to file any response to either complaint, and on December 18, 2002, this Court entered defaults against defendants in both cases.

However, despite the entries of default, this Court is required to make a further inquiry prior to entering any judgment against defendants. FSIA mandates that a default judgment against a foreign state be entered only after a plaintiff "establishes his claim or right to relief by evidence that is satisfactory to the Court." 28 U.S.C. § 1608(e); see also Flatow v. The Islamic Republic of Iran, 999 F.Supp. 1, 6 (D.D.C.1998). As in Flatow, the Court will require plaintiffs to establish their right to relief by clear and convincing evidence. The "clear and convincing" standard of proof is the standard required in the District of Columbia to support a claim for punitive damages, and is sufficient to establish a prima facie case in a contested proceeding.

II. FINDINGS OF FACT

As stated above, this Court received testimony from plaintiffs on March 17 and 18 2003, defendants having failed to enter an appearance. The Court now enters its findings of fact, based upon the sworn testimony and documentary evidence presented during the March trial, and received in accordance with the Federal Rules of Evidence. This Court finds these facts to be established by clear and convincing evidence.

A. Historical Background2

The Republic of Lebanon is a mountainous country of approximately 3,800,000 people bordered by Israel, Syria, and the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Although it contains some of the oldest human settlements in the world, including the Phoenician port cities of Tyre and Sidon, it did not become an independent nation until 1944.

Lebanon did not participate militarily in the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars. However, by 1973, approximately one out of every ten person living in Lebanon was a Palestinian refugee, many of whom supported the efforts of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) against Israel. Some of these refugees engaged in guerilla warfare and terrorist activity against Israel from bases established in southern Lebanon. Beginning in 1968, Israel engaged in reprisals against these Palestinian strongholds in southern Lebanon. In 1975, civil war broke out in Lebanon between its Muslim inhabitants and Palestinian refugees, who supported the PLO, and its Christian inhabitants, who opposed the PLO's actions. The war would not come to a complete end for another fifteen years, during which approximately twenty thousand Lebanese were killed, and approximately the same number of Lebanese were wounded.

B. The Arrival of the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit

In late 1982, with the concurrence of the United Nations, a multinational peacekeeping coalition consisting of American, British, French, and Italian soldiers arrived in the Lebanese capital of Beirut. In May of 1983, the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit of the U.S. Marines ("the 24th MAU") joined this coalition.3 The rules of engagement issued to the servicemen of the 24th MAU made clear that the servicemen possessed neither combatant nor police powers. In fact, under the rules, the servicemen were ordered not to carry weapons with live rounds in their chambers, and were not authorized to chamber the rounds in their weapons unless (1) they were directly ordered to do so by a commissioned officer or (2) they found themselves in a situation requiring the immediate use of deadly force in self-defense.4 As pointed out during trial, the members of the 24th MAU were more restricted in their use of force than an ordinary U.S. citizen walking down a street in Washington, D.C.

The restrictive rules of engagement are consistent with the testimony of Col. Timothy Geraghty, the commander of the 24th MAU, about the mission of the multinational peacekeeping force:

[Essentially what it was, it was primarily a peacekeeping mission and it was to show [our] presence, and when I say ours, and this is throughout all the forces, is that we were out showing a presence, [primarily] to provide stability to the area. And I might add that there's no doubt in just about anyone involved at the time, we saved a lot of lives by our presence there for awhile. And that was part of, I might add, in my judgment, the success of that, our presence mission there, and [that] it was working is the primary reason why we were targeted....

The rules—these were geared primarily again with the peacekeeping mission [in mind] and the sensitivities of killing or maiming someone accidentally. That could be a tinderbox. That could start a whole chain of events.

Col. Geraghty further testified that the location and security of the 24th MAU's position was not tactical in nature, and was only acceptable to the commanding officer in the context of the unit's mission to "provide a presence."

Based on the testimony of Col. Geraghty and other witnesses, the Court finds that on October 23, 1983, the members of the 24th MAU, and the service members supporting the unit, were clearly non-combatants operating under peacetime rules of engagement.5

C. The Iranian Government and the October 23 Attack6

Following the 1979 revolution spearheaded by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the nation of Iran was transformed into an Islamic theocracy. The new government promptly drafted a constitution, which is still in effect today. The preamble to the 1979 constitution sets forth the mission of the post-revolutionary Iranian state:

The mission of the Constitution is to realize the ideological objectives of the movement and to create conditions conducive to the development of man in accordance with the noble and universal values of Islam.

With due attention to the Islamic content of the Iranian Revolution, the Constitution provides the necessary basis for ensuring the continuation of the Revolution at home and abroad. In particular, in the development of international relations, the Constitution will strive with other Islamic and popular movements to prepare the way for the formation of a single world community ... to assure the continuation of the struggle for the liberation of all deprived and oppressed peoples in the world.

The post-revolutionary government in Iran thus declared its commitment to spread the goals of the 1979 revolution to other nations. Towards that end, between 1983 and 1988, the government of Iran spent approximately $60 to $150 million financing terrorist organizations in the Near East.7 One of the nations to which the Iranian government directed its attention was the war-torn republic of Lebanon.

"Hezbollah" is an Arabic word meaning "the party of God." It is also the name of a group of Shi`ite Muslims in Lebanon that was formed under the auspices of the government of Iran. Hezbollah began its existence as a faction within a group of moderate Lebanese Shi`tes known as Amal. Following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Iranian government sought to...

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