RICHMOND, Va. – Families of 17 sailors killed in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole have new hope for being compensated for their pain and suffering after a federal appeals court reinstated their $282 million lawsuit against Sudan on Thursday.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously rejected a lower court's ruling that the families could not seek damage for emotional distress because they had already won an earlier judgment for compensatory damages. U.S. District Judge Robert Doumar had said the plaintiffs could not sue twice for the same terrorist attack.
But the appeals court ruled that a law passed by Congress in 2008 while the first lawsuit was still on appeal specifically allowed the families to file the second complaint.
"It's been a 12-year fight, so this is a major step forward for us. Just tremendous," said Andrew Hall, attorney for the families.
The case will now go back to Doumar for trial. Sudan has not participated in the cases since it initially unsuccessfully challenged the district court's jurisdiction.
"They're more than welcome to enter because I have a lot of questions I'd like to ask," Hall said.
The first lawsuit was filed under the 1920 Death on the High Seas Act, which allows only compensatory damages to spouses and children of victims. The families won a judgment of $8 million. Interest has increased the amount to more than $14 million.
In 2008, Congress passed the Justice for Victims of State Sponsored Terorism Act. That law allows for retroactive punitive-damages awards against nations that sponsor terrorism. It also expands the pool of potential plaintiffs to include the victims' parents and siblings. The families filed another lawsuit under that law.
Without being asked by Sudan, Doumar declared that a legal doctrine barring repetitive litigation barred the second lawsuit. The appeals court said Doumar had authority to consider the issue on his own, but that he reached the wrong conclusion.
Judge Allyson Duncan wrote that allowing a defense that effectively shields state sponsors of terrorism would undermine the congressional purpose for enacting the 2008 law.
The families of the 17 sailors who were killed claim that Sudan provided support to the al-Qaida terrorists who steered an explosives-laden boat into the USS Cole, a guided-missile destroyer, on Oct. 12, 2000, while it was stopped to refuel in a port in Yemen. The attack also injured 42 other sailors and tore a massive hole into the side of the ship. The Norfolk-based ship was recommissioned in 2002.
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