Tort litigator discusses terrorism

This is a republication of an original article written by Eliyahu Wolfe and Oren Lazar.

On Thursday, Feb. 28, 2008, a number of Law Center student groups – including JLSA, MLS, ILS and the Federalist Society – hosted a seasoned Supreme Court and Circuit Court litigator, who spoke about claims filed against state sponsors of terrorist attacks. Steven Perles’s litigation practice at the Perles Law Firm, P.C., where he is the senior attorney and founder, includes many cases under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA).

Mr. Perles advised students interested in understanding the current state of this area of law to begin with the precedent set in 1995, in a case called Hugo Princz v. Federal Republic of Germany in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. That cased represented the hurdles that need to be overcome by a victim of an attack of any kind, directed or sponsored by a government, to recovery damages. In Princz, Germany was found responsible for the conditions under which some American prisoners were held. The precedent set in Princz allowed for liability of foreign governments despite the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which would have traditionally prevented such suits. The next burning question in this area of law is whether Princz can be extended to contemporary acts of violence at the direction or behest of modern nation states.

Mr. Perles is currently representing families of victims in recent attacks on Americans outside the Unites States, including the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon. 241 American servicemen were killed by a complex bomb loaded on a tractor-trailer. Mr. Perles said the magnitude of the bomb suggested that the device was the result of an elaborate operation. However, it was not until Mr. Perles and his legal team obtained testimony from a former Hizbollah operative that the bomb’s connection to Iran was solidified. Mr. Perles was able to prove to the court that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard had an active role in constructing the bomb and recruiting the operatives who would eventually drive into the Marine Barracks, thereby supporting the most devastating terrorist attack on Americans to that date.

A more recent case handled by Mr. Perles was that of the Flatow Family in Flatow v. Islamic Republic of Iran, a 1998 case in the D.C. District Court. Alisa Flatow was an American girl who found herself on the wrong bus at the wrong time when she was killed by the detonation of an explosive-laden van driven by an Islamic Jihad operative. Through trickery, enticement, intimidation, and other tactics at clandestine meetings in Middle Eastern countries, Mr. Perles assembled evidence connecting the Iranian actors to the Palestinian bombers; the court held this operative to be acting under the direction of Iranian governmental agencies. The Iranian government did not appear in court to contest this evidence, and a default judgment was filed.

Mr. Perles also discussed with the audience how even when a case is over, and a judgment has been rendered for the victims, victory is not yet assured. The real work is in finding how to enforce the judgments and get money to the victims. Recent amendments to the FSIA are opening windows for litigators like Perles to attach money owed to state sponsors of terror by companies with a U.S. presence as well. One example Mr. Perles provided of how this may work in practice involved potential means to collect a judgment against the Libyan government after the Berlin Disco bombing; Perles theorized that he may be able to attach fees owed to Libya by business partners like Occidental to recover for victims of attacks sponsored by the Libyan government.

Litigators bringing suits under the FSIA pursue two primary goals: obtaining judgments for the victims, and forcing companies to realize that by doing business with state sponsors of terrorist acts, they expose themselves to drawn out litigation battles over money held on their books to be paid to state sponsors of terror. How the courts and the State Department will react to the expansion of litigation into a traditionally diplomatic realm, however, has yet to be conclusively determined; observers would do well to look for future developments in this area of law.