NEW YORK – A U.S. appeals court on Wednesday tossed out a $654 million jury verdict against the Palestine Liberation Organization for terrorist attacks in the early 2000s in Israel that killed or wounded Americans, saying the U.S. courts lack jurisdiction because the attacks were random and not aimed at the United States.
The United States government had said last year that the case threatened to financially destabilize the Palestinian government and harm the region.
Wednesday's written decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said the attacks in 2002 and 2004 that killed 33 people and wounded hundreds more were "unquestionably horrific." But the three-judge panel said they were fortuitous and "not expressly aimed at the United States."
The decision, written by U.S. District Judge John G. Koeltl, who was sitting on the court temporarily, said offices maintained by the PLO and Palestinian Authority in Washington were used to promote the Palestinian cause in speeches and media appearances and to retain a lobbying firm. It said those purposes were insufficient to give U.S. courts jurisdiction over the groups for random attacks abroad.
"It's a very surprising ruling," said Robert Tolchin, an attorney for families of Americans killed or injured in the attacks.
He said the decision provides "a free pass for terrorists" to kill Americans overseas. Lawyers, he added, were considering appeals options.
Gassan A. Baloul, an attorney for the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization, said: "We are very gratified that the court fully accepted our clients' consistent position that the PA and the PLO are not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States courts in these matters."
The ruling pertained to a February 2015 jury award of $218 million to Americans in a case that relied on the Anti-Terrorism Act, which allows victims of U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations to seek compensation for pain and suffering, loss of earnings and other hardship. The award was automatically tripled under the law.
In court papers after the jury verdict, a U.S. government official urged a judge to consider the impact of a bond requirement in the case, saying the United States has provided billions of dollars to strengthen Palestinian institutions, promote security in the West Bank, expand Palestinian economic growth and help create conditions for peace.
The official wrote that depriving the Palestinian Authority of a significant portion of its revenues could cause it to collapse, which would undermine several decades of U.S. foreign policy, add a new destabilizing factor to the region and compromise national security.
A Justice Department spokesman declined comment Wednesday on the 2nd Circuit ruling.