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Cielito Valencia, et al v. Islamic Republic of Iran

March 31, 2010

CIELITO VALENCIA, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Royce C. Lamberth, Chief Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

This action arises out of the horrific June 25, 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers, a housing complex for United States Air Force personnel in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The explosion sheared off the side of Building 131 of the complex and reduced the rest of the structure to rubble, killing nineteen United States servicemen while injuring hundreds of others-including Airmen Cielito Valencia, Steven Wolfe, and Sonya Turner Broadway. In early 2008, these three airmen, along with Airman Valencia's mother, Luz Southard, brought suit pursuant to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act ("FSIA") against defendants Islamic Republic of Iran ("Iran"), the Iranian Ministry of Information and Security ("MOIS"), and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps ("IRGC"). Plaintiffs alleged that these defendants provided material support and assistance to Saudi Hezbollah, the terrorist organization responsible for the attack on Khobar Towers, and thus are subject to suit under the FSIA's "state-sponsored terrorism" exception, codified at 28 U.S.C. § 1605A. This Court subsequently assigned the matter to a special master for the collection and review of evidence concerning plaintiff's standing and the extent of their injuries. Now that this process is complete, the Court turns to the merits of plaintiffs' suit and, for the reasons set forth below, finds that plaintiffs have established by sufficient evidence that defendants are responsible for the Khobar Towers bombing and awards damages to plaintiffs as appropriate.

II. BACKGROUND

A. Prior Khobar Towers Litigation

The history of litigation arising from the attack on Khobar Towers is substantial, and derives primary from two cases: Blais v. Islamic Republic of Iran, in which an Air Force search and rescue coordinator, along with his mother and step-father, sought to recover damages for their injuries, 459 F. Supp. 2d 40, 46--51 (D.D.C. 2006); and Heiser v. Islamic Republic of Iran, in which representatives for 17 of the 19 persons killed in the explosion brought suit. 466 F. Supp. 2d 229, 248 (D.D.C. 2006) ("Heiser I"). In these two cases plaintiffs submitted significant evidence concerning the event itself, as well as the perpetrators of the attack. In Blais, the plaintiffs presented the investigations and opinions of Louis Freeh and Dale Watson. Mr. Freeh was the FBI Director at the time, and under his direction the FBI "conducted a massive and thorough investigation of the attack." Blais, 459 F. Supp. 2d at 48. Mr. Watson was the Deputy Counterterrorism Chief of the FBI and after the attack became Section Chief for all international terrorism at the Bureau-a position in which he was responsible "for day to day oversight of the FBI investigation." Id. In addition, Dr. Bruce Tefft, "one of the founding members of the CIA's counterterrorism bureau" and an expert consultant on terrorism-related issues, was qualified as an expert and gave extensive testimony concerning the defendants' involvement in terrorist activities. Id. at 48--49. In Heiser, even more extensive evidence was presented to a magistrate judge over the course of more than two weeks. Heiser I, 466 F. Supp. 2d at 250. Though relying on much of the same evidence as the plaintiffs in Blais, the Heiser plaintiffs were also able to present live testimony from Mr. Freeh, as well as additional statements from Mr. Watson and Dr. Tefft. Id. at 253--54. In addition, the Heiser plaintiffs presented Dr. Patrick Clawson, a participant in a Commission investigating the Khobar Towers attack and who studies Iranian support for terrorism. Id. at 253. The Court qualified Dr. Clawson as an expert, and received his testimony concerning "(1) the government of Iran; (2) Iran's sponsorship of terrorism; and (3) the Iranian economy." Id. Based on this evidence, this Court determined in each case that "the Khobar Towers bombing was planned, funded, and sponsored by senior leadership in the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran; the IRGC had the responsibility of working with Saudi Hizbollah*fn1 to execute the plan, and the MOIS participated in the planning and funding of the attack." Id. at 265; see also Blais, 459 F. Supp. 2d at 48 (finding that defendants "were responsible for planning and supporting the attack on Khobar Towers").

B. This Case

Plaintiffs commenced this action in early 2008 alleging that Saudi Hezbollah "act[ed] as an agent of the Islamic Republic of Iran [and] performed acts within the scope of its agency, within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. §§ 1605A and 1605 note, caused that injuries to the Plaintiffs." Complaint ¶ 14, Mar. 28, 2008 [1]. In support of this central claim, plaintiffs allege facts consistent with those found by this Court in Blais, Heiser, and other actions arising out of the Khobar Towers bombing. Specifically, plaintiffs allege that (1) Iran used MOIS and the IRGC as agents to develop a program of planned acts of terrorism throughout the Middle East, id. at ¶ 16, (2) defendants-working in concert-established, funded and supported Hezbollah, id. at ¶ 17, and (3) defendants provided Hezbollah with the funds, materials and tools necessary to plan and carry out the attack on Khobar Towers. Id. at ¶¶ 18--20. Based on these allegations, the Complaint sets forth claims for personal injury, assault and battery under state law, economic damages, intentional infliction of emotional distress, solatium, and punitive damages.

Plaintiffs first attempted to serve the relevant papers and necessary translations on the defendants by certified mail, Certificate of Clerk, June 26, 2008 [4], as required by statute. See 28 U.S.C. § 1608(a) (setting forth preferred methods of service in FSIA actions). After the mailings were returned, Summons Returned Unexecuted, Sep. 12, 2008 [5], plaintiffs attempted service by diplomatic channels. Request, Sep. 25, 2008 [6]. According to the diplomatic note returned to the Court, service through diplomatic means was effected on December 9, 2008, Return of Service/Affidavit, Mar. 6, 2009 [11], which obligated defendants to appear and answer or otherwise move to dismiss by February 2, 2009. See 28 U.S.C. § 1608(d) ("[A] foreign state shall serve an answer or other responsive pleading to the complaint within sixty days after service has been made under this section."). Almost six months after defendants' responses were due and pursuant to plaintiffs' request, the Clerk entered default on behalf of all defendants, Clerk's Entry of Default, Jan. 25, 2010 [16], and the Court subsequently granted plaintiffs' motion for entry of default judgment. Order Granting Motion for Default Judgment, July 2, 2010

[22]. Following entry of default, plaintiffs requested the assignment of a special master to this action for the collection of evidence concerning damages. Affidavit Concerning Appointment of Special Master, July 13, 2010 [23]. The Court subsequently appointed a special master and directed plaintiffs to promptly submit all necessary evidence to his office. Order Appointing Special Master, July 23, 2010 [24]. Several months later the special master filed his reports concerning the scope of each plaintiff's injuries. Having now received all evidence necessary to render final judgment, the Court makes the subsequent findings of fact and reaches the following conclusions of law.

III. FINDINGS OF FACT

Under the FSIA, a court cannot simply enter default judgment against a foreign state, but must, out of respect for the principle of sovereign immunity, ensure that plaintiffs "establish [their] claim or right to relief by evidence that is satisfactory to the court." 28 U.S.C. 1608(e). This statutory requirement "imposes a duty on FSIA courts to not simply accept a complaint's unsupported allegations as true, and obligates courts to inquire further before entering judgment against parties in default. Rimkus v. Islamic Republic of Iran, ___ F. Supp. 2d __, __, No. 08 Civ. 1615, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 120991, at *13--14 (D.D.C. Nov. 16, 2010) (internal quotations omitted) ("Rimkus II"). To satisfy this burden, plaintiffs here presented substantial testimonial and documentary evidence concerning their backgrounds and injuries suffered, and also requested that the Court take judicial notice of prior findings of fact and evidence related to the Khobar Towers bombing and defendants' involvement in the attack. Prior judicial findings of fact "represent merely a court's probabilistic determination as to what happened," and thus constitute hearsay and are inadmissible. Anderson v. Islamic Republic of Iran, ___ F. Supp. 2d __, __, No. 08 Civ. 535, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 126457, at *10--11 (D.D.C. Dec. 1, 2010). However, this Court has previously observed that "the statutory obligation found in § 1608(e) was not designed to impose the onerous burden of re-litigating key facts in related cases arising out of the same terrorist attack." Rimkus II, ___ F. Supp. 2d at __, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 120991 at *18 (citing Brewer v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 664 F. Supp. 2d 43, 54 (D.D.C. 2009)). Thus, the appropriate approach when considering related proceedings in FSIA cases "permits courts in subsequent related cases to rely upon the evidence presented in earlier litigation . . . without necessitating the formality of having that evidence reproduced." Id. (citing Murphy v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 740 F. Supp. 2d 51, 55 (D.D.C. 2010)). Bearing these parameters of judicial notice in mind, and armed with the special master's summary of the evidence, the Court renders the following findings of fact:

Cielito Valencia

Documentary evidence establishes that Airman Cielito Valencia was born in the United States and has remained a citizen his entire life. Report of Special Master Concerning Counts IIII (Cielito Valencia) 5, Mar. 23, 2011 [28] ("Valencia Rpt."). Airman Valencia enlisted in the Air Force in 1994, and began training in San Antonio, Texas as a supply management specialist. Id. at 6. He was subsequently transferred to Elgin Air Force Base until April, 1996, at which time he was deployed to Saudi Arabia as part of the 58th Fighter Squadron. Id. at 6--7.

Steven Wolfe

Documentary evidence shows that Airman Steven Wolfe was born in LaGrande, Oregon, and has been a United States citizen his entire life. Report of Special Master Concerning Counts I-III (Steven Wolfe) 5, Mar. 24, 2011 [29] ("Wolfe Rpt."). Airman Wolfe enlisted in the Air Force in 1993 at age 18, having wanted to work on aircraft his entire life. Id. at 6. He completed basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas and then went through additional technical and munitions training at Lowery Air Force Base near Denver, Colorado.

Id. In 1994 he was transferred to Elgin Air Force Base and subsequently deployed to Saudi Arabia as a specialist attached to the 58th Fight Squadron, where his work involved loading and arming, and then unloading and disarming, weapons systems on the aircraft. Id. at 6--7.

Sonya Turner Broadway

Documentary evidence demonstrates that Airman Sonya Turner Broadway was born in Cumberland, Maryland, and has been a United States citizen her entire life. Report of Special Master Concerning Counts I-III (Sonya Turner Broadway) 5, Mar. 22, 2011 [27] ("Broadway Rpt."). Airman Broadway enlisted in the Air Force in 1994. Id. at 6. At the time, she wanted to work as a police officer, so she joined the military to gain experience working as a security specialist. Id. Airman Broadway received basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, and subsequently spent two months at the police academy at Lackland before training for two additional months at the academy at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Id. at 6--7. Airman Broadway then worked in the Security Police forces at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, before volunteering for temporary deployment in 1996. Id. at 7. Airman Broadway was deployed to Saudi Arabia and billeted to work security for Building 131 of the Khobar Towers complex, where she was assigned a number of duties, including patrolling the perimeter of the complex, working the flight lines and manning the entry gates into the area. Id.

Defendants

Defendant Iran "is a foreign state and has been designated a state sponsor of terrorism . . . since January 19, 1984." Blais, 459 F. Supp. 2d at 47 (internal quotations omitted). Defendant MOIS is the secret police and intelligence organization of Iran, and has been previously characterized by the Court as both a "division of the state of Iran," Valore v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 700 F. Supp. 2d 52, 65 (D.D.C. 2010), and a "conduit for [Iran]'s provision of funds to Hezbollah." Murphy v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 740 F. Supp. 2d 51, 59 (D.D.C. 2010). Defendant IRGC has been described by expert testimony as "a non-traditional instrumentality of Iran" that acts as "the military arm of a kind of shadow government answering directly to the Ayatollah and the mullahs who hold power in Iran." Blais, 459 F. Supp. 2d at 47.

The Khobar Towers Bombing

Testimony was received by this Court in both Blais and Heiser from multiples witnesses of the bombing as well as several experts who studied the history of the event and the parties behind the attack. This testimony included that of Mr. Freeh-the FBI director at the time of the attack-and Mr. Watson-a chief in the counterterrorism division of the FBI who oversaw the day-to-day investigation of the bombing. Id. at 48. A review of all of the evidence establishes the following record of the attack on Khobar Towers:

In the late evening on June 25, 1996, a large gasoline tanker pulled up to the perimeter wall of the complex. After the vehicle came to a stop, the driver of the tanker leapt out of the truck and into a waiting car, which sped from the scene. Id. at 47. Though the truck did not go unnoticed by guards atop Building 131-the building nearest the parked tanker-less than 20 minutes after being parked the truck exploded with a force equivalent of 20,000 pounds of TNT. At the time, this was the largest non-nuclear explosion to have ever occurred. Id. at 47--48. Rocked by the explosion, the face of Building 131 closest to the blast was sheared away from the foundation, while ...


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