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Van Beneden v. Al-Sanusi

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

January 22, 2014

MICHELLE VAN BENEDEN, as Sole Legatee of Peter Lesley Knowland, Plaintiff,
ABDALLAH AL-SANUSI, et al., Defendants

For MICHELLE VAN BENEDEN, as Sole Legatee of Peter Lesley Knowland, Plaintiff: Richard D. Heideman, LEAD ATTORNEY, Tracy Reichman Kalik, HEIDEMAN NUDELMAN & KALIK, P.C., Washington, DC; Edward B. MacAllister, Steven R. Perles, PERLES LAW FIRM, P.C., Washington, DC.

For SYRIAN ARAB REPUBLIC, Defendant: William Ramsey Clark, LEAD ATTORNEY, New York, NY.


Page 63


ROSEMARY M. COLLYER, United States District Judge.

Who was Peter Knowland? It depends on whom you ask. According to Michelle Van Beneden, who claims to be Mr. Knowland's sole heir, Mr. Knowland was an American national injured in an horrific Syrian-sponsored terrorist attack on the Schwechat Airport in Vienna, Austria in 1985 for which his estate may recover damages. Ms. Van Beneden claims that Mr. Knowland, who was formerly named

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Peter Lesley but changed his last name one year before the attack, died decades later outside the United States after executing a Will that left his estate to her rather than to his wife. Ms. Van Beneden further contends that a Belgian court has appointed her administrator of Mr. Knowland's estate. The Syrian Arab Republic disagrees. It contends that the only American man injured in the attack was an individual named Peter Lesley, who was not Mr. Knowland, and that regardless of Mr. Knowland's true identity, Ms. Van Beneden has no legal claim to his estate. Accordingly, Syria moves for summary judgment for lack of standing. This Court need not square these competing contentions, however, because the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission has found that not only is Ms. Van Beneden not the proper representative of Mr. Knowland's estate, but also that Mr. Knowland's estate does not exist as a legal entity. Collaterally estopped from contesting these findings, Ms. Van Beneden is without standing to pursue the instant litigation. Consequently, the Court will grant summary judgment to Syria.


On December 27, 1985, two teams of terrorists associated with the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO)[1] simultaneously attacked the Schwechat Airport in Vienna, Austria, and the Fiumicino Airport in Rome, Italy. Compl. [Dkt. 1] ¶ ¶ 18, 22; Van Beneden, 709 F.3d at 1167. The twin attacks resulted in the deaths of sixteen people and the wounding of 105. Id. ¶ ¶ 21-22. ANO claimed responsibility for the attacks. Id. ¶ 23. Later, two of the attackers corroborated ANO's involvement and revealed that the terrorists were trained by Syrians at ANO camps in Syrian-controlled Lebanon. See id. ¶ ¶ 24-36, 61-64. The instant litigation stems from these attacks.

Nearly twenty-three years after the attacks, Peter Knowland sued Syria, the State of Libya, and several Syrian and Libyan organizations and individuals pursuant to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA), 28 U.S.C. § § 1602 et seq. [2] The Complaint alleges that Mr. Knowland was injured during the attack at the Schwechat Airport, and that he " was, at the time of the acts alleged, an American citizen[,] . . . . [and] is a permanent resident of the State of Florida." Compl. ¶ 7. Unmentioned in the Complaint, however, is that Mr. Knowland had not always been an American citizen, a resident of Florida, or for that matter, sported the surname Knowland. Thus, the Court is tasked with patching together Mr. Knowland's life from documents in the record.

A. The Life of Mr. Knowland

According to his Certificate of Naturalization, Mr. Knowland was born in Hungary on July 14, 1944. Opp'n to Syria's Mot. for Summ. J. (Opp'n) [Dkt. 32], Ex. A (Certificate of Naturalization) [Dkt. 32-1]. Under the name Peter Lesley, he became

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a U.S. citizen on May 19, 1969. Id. In 1984, Mr. Knowland successfully petitioned a California state court to change his legal name from Peter Lesley to Peter Lesley Knowland. Id., Ex. D (Decree Changing Name) [Dkt. 32-4]. Presumably, at that time, Mr. Knowland lived in California.

At some point, Mr. Knowland moved abroad; when and where is unclear. Also uncertain is how Mr. Knowland came to be in Austria at the time of the Schwechat Airport attack. However, a Will that Mr. Knowland executed in Monaco on September 7, 2009, in anticipation of a surgical procedure, fills in a few gaps. Id., Ex. E (Translated Will) [Dkt. 32-5] at 7. According to that Will, Mr. Knowland married Decia Knowland shortly after the attack on the Schwechat Airport. Id. at 6. The pair wed in Austria but " established [their] first matrimonial residence" in Belgium, where, at an unspecified time, Mr. Knowland became a citizen (in addition to his earlier U.S. citizenship). Id. The marriage evidently soured. At the time of the Will, Mr. Knowland lived apart from his wife: she in Switzerland and he in Monaco. Id. By the terms of the Will, Mr. Knowland expressly " deprive[d] [his] wife of all rights to [his] inheritance . . . ." Id. Mr. Knowland " establish[ed] Mrs. Michèle Marie Franç oise Van Benden [sic] as [his] sole legatee . . . .[,]" and directed that she " receive the net proceeds that [he] will receive from the liquidation [of certain marital property]. . . . [as well as] all assets that [he] own[ed] on the day of [his] death." [3] Id.

Mr. Knowland survived his surgery, but died on January 20, 2010, in Belgium. At the time of his death, he possessed a U.S. passport that had been issued by the U.S. Embassy in Brussels, and had an expiration date in October 2010. Id., Ex. B (U.S. Passport) [Dkt. 32-2]. According to a death notice issued by the U.S. Department of State, Mr. Knowland died of unspecified causes. The death notice, which recorded Monaco as Mr. Knowland's permanent or temporary residence, identified two aliases for him: Peter Lesley and Laszlo Peter Takascs. Id., Ex. C (Amended Report of Death of an American Citizen Abroad) [Dkt. 32-3].

B. Mr. Knowland's Quest for Damages

Shortly before his death and more than twenty years after the ANO attacks, Mr. Knowland began seeking compensation for the injuries he suffered during the attack on the Schwechat Airport. In so doing, he instituted parallel proceedings before the U.S. Department of ...

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