The nearly simultaneous truck bombings at the embassies killed 224 people and injured thousands. They were the first major attacks on U.S. targets by al-Qaida. The case before the Supreme Court involves lawsuits filed by victims and their families against Sudan that accused the country of causing the bombings by aiding al-Qaida and leader Osama bin Laden, who lived in Sudan in the 1990s. On Monday, both conservative and liberal Supreme Court justices peppered Sudan's lawyer with often skeptical questions and seemed more open to the arguments of the victims' lawyer and a U.S. government attorney arguing on their side.
Justice Elena Kagan told attorney Christopher Curran, arguing for Sudan, at one point that his views seemed “awfully complicated and probably not what Congress had in mind.” A small group of embassy bombing victims and their family members were in court Monday for the arguments. But the more than 500 people involved in the case are mostly foreign citizens, either U.S. government employees or contractors injured in the bombings or relatives of those who died.
A court initially awarded the group more than $10 billion, but an appeals court threw out $4 billion of the award that was punitive damages. The court said a federal law, the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, bars punitive damages for events such as the bombings if they happened before a 2008 amendment to the law.
Justice Neil Gorsuch suggested the victims are eligible for punitive damages. “If we agree that compensatory damages apply retroactively, on what account does it make sense to speak of punitive damages not also applying retroactively, given that it's authorized by the same statute?” he said.
The case has particular relevance now because Sudan's transitional government is seeking to be removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and settling with the bombing victims is seen as critical to doing so. Getting off the list would allow Sudan, which last year ousted autocrat Omar al-Bashir amid massive public protests, to get loans to rebuild its economy.
It's unclear how much the bombing victims might get from the cash-strapped country. But if the Supreme Court allows punitive damages, it would be leverage to get a larger settlement for victims. A decision in the Supreme Court case is expected by the end of June.
The case is Opati v. Sudan, 17-1268.