NORFOLK, Va. – A federal judge on Tuesday rejected the government of Sudan's request to dismiss a lawsuit filed against it by relatives of the 17 sailors killed in the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole.
U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar also said he was inclined to apply the Death on the High Seas Act to the lawsuit, which could reduce potential damages from $105 million to no more than $35 million.
The act limits compensation to economic losses, said Andrew C. Hall, an attorney for the families, who sued for wrongful death. The higher figure sought by the families includes damages for pain and suffering of the 59 spouses, parents and children of the bombing victims.
"The amount of money that's going to be awarded has never really been the issue," Hall said after Tuesday's pretrial hearing. "They'd trade all the money in the world to have their sailors back."
The lawsuit, set for trial March 13, 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 while it was in the port of Aden, Yemen, on Oct. 12, 2000.
According to a final pretrial order the judge signed Tuesday, the families' attorneys contend that the attack could not have happened without Sudan's support and that Sudan's embassy in New York gave logistical assistance to the bombers of the World Trade Center in 1993.
Doumar had to consider which laws apply from which country: the United States, Sudan or Yemen. He said he thought U.S. law applies because a U.S. ship was attacked.
"It does appear that the Death on the High Seas Act is an exclusive remedy," Doumar said, without offering details.
Sudan's request to dismiss was based in part on the argument that the lawsuit was filed after the act's three-year statute of limitations. Hall said outside court that the statute is 10 years if a foreign sovereign is involved.
A lawyer representing Sudan attended the hearing but made no statements. When Doumar asked the attorney whether Sudan objected to any of the plaintiffs' 183 trial exhibits, lawyer Carl D. Gray reminded the judge that "Sudan has elected not to take any position on the merits."
Hall said he expects the trial to last two to three days, with testimony by six family members and one or two experts. Attorneys also will give the judge depositions by about 50 people, including R. James Woolsey, former CIA director under President Clinton.