NORFOLK, Va. – A federal judge said Thursday he plans to proceed with a trial next month of a $105 million lawsuit against the Sudanese government filed by families of the 17 sailors killed in the USS Cole bombing.
U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar called a hearing to determine what laws apply from which country, the United States, Sudan or Yemen. He did not issue a ruling. Another hearing is set for Feb. 27, and the trial is scheduled to start March 13.
The lawsuit alleges that Sudan's government provided financial and training support to Al Qaeda, including the militants who planned the attack on the Norfolk-based Navy destroyer in the Aden, Yemen, harbor on Oct. 12, 2000.
Lawyers representing Sudan attended the hearing but did not offer arguments. Attorney Gregory Stillman reminded the judge that he has not ruled on Sudan's long-standing request to dismiss the case.
"I can guarantee you I'm not going to dismiss the action," Doumar replied.
Sudan's attorneys have argued that the lawsuit should be thrown out because it doesn't directly connect any Al Qaeda support to the Cole bombing and fails to connect any official or agent of Sudan to support for the terrorist network.
Sudan also contends the federal court here lacks jurisdiction and is waiting to find out whether the U.S. Supreme Court will hold a hearing in the case.
Andrew C. Hall, an attorney for the families, argued that it is a wrongful death case that should be considered under U.S. law and take into account the survivors' emotional distress.
Doumar said Hall was trying to avoid limiting the possible damages by arguing against using the Death on the High Seas Act, which focuses on economic losses.
"Your honor, I'm trying to seek the maximum award possible for the victims of this bombing," Hall acknowledged. He said outside court that applying DOHSA would reduce any potential damages to about $25 million, to be shared by 59 spouses, parents and children of the bombing victims.
Hall said earlier in an interview that the American public will learn new details about the attack when the lawsuit goes to trial, with the families' lawyers presenting information that demonstrates the Cole bombing "would not occur without Sudan's active involvement."
About 50 people — including R. James Woolsey, former CIA director under President Clinton — already have been questioned and the judge will receive their depositions so they will not take the stand, Hall said. One or two expert witnesses and four family members will testify in person, he said.
Foreign citizens ordinarily are immune from lawsuits in U.S. courts, but Congress amended the law in 1996 to allow victims to seek monetary damages against countries classified as state sponsors of terrorism.