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Bathiard v. Islamic Republic of Iran

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 29, 2019

RITA BATHIARD et al., Plaintiffs,
ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN et al., Defendants.



         On April 18, 1983, a suicide bomber crashed a truck full of explosives into the entrance of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, setting off a blast that killed 52 people. Among those who died was Cesar Bathiard, a Lebanese citizen working at the Embassy. In 2016, his widow and daughters brought suit against the Islamic Republic of Iran under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (“FSIA”), alleging that Iran was responsible for the attack and Bathiard's resulting death. When Iran failed to appear in the case, the Bathiards filed a motion for default judgment.

         This Court, in June 2018, denied that motion after raising the FSIA's statute of limitations sue sponte and determining that the action was untimely. See Bathiard v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 317 F.Supp.3d 134, 138-43 (D.D.C. 2018). In May 2019, the D.C. Circuit held that district courts do not have the discretion to raise the statute of limitations when a FSIA defendant fails to do so itself-and reversed and remanded this case and others. See Maalouf v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 923 F.3d 1095, 1115-16 (D.C. Cir. 2019). Back on remand, the Court, for the reasons that follow, will grant Bathiard's motion for default judgment and appoint a special master to make a recommendation on an appropriate damages award.

         I. Background

         Cesar Bathiard was employed by the Department of State at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut for a little over a decade. Mot. Default J. Aff. 1, ¶ 4 (Bathiard Estate Aff.).[1] In April 1983, he was serving as a driver for Robert S. Dillon, then the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon. Id. On April 18, 1983, Bathiard was in the lobby of the embassy, waiting for Ambassador Dillon to come downstairs, when an explosives-laden truck crashed into the building and detonated. Id. ¶ 5. He was killed instantly. Id.

         Over thirty years later, in August 2016, Bathiard's widow Marcelle El-Helou and his two daughters Rita Bathiard and Pascale Mazarei (collectively “the Bathiards”) filed suit on behalf of themselves and his estate against the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Iranian Ministry of Information and Security (collectively “Iran”). The Bathiards alleged that Iranian military and intelligence operatives financed and directed Hezbollah, the militant group that carried out the embassy bombing. Compl. ¶¶ 6, 10. They claimed that Iran had “complete operational control” of Hezbollah and provided high-level technical support and funding to Hezbollah without which the April 1983 embassy bombing would not have been possible. Id. ¶¶ 6-7. Their suit seeks to hold Iran liable for injuries stemming from Cesar Bathiard's death under a provision in the FSIA that authorizes suits by U.S. citizens or employees and their families against foreign sovereigns who are state sponsors of terrorism for their involvement in acts of terrorism. See 28 U.S.C. § 1605A.

         In September 2017, the Bathiards served Iran with process through diplomatic channels. See ECF No. 16. When Iran failed to appear, they obtained a notice of default on November 29, 2017, see ECF No. 18, and subsequently moved for a default judgment, see ECF No. 19. Prior to resolving their motion, however, the Court directed the parties to file supplemental briefing addressing whether this suit was timely under the applicable statute of limitations. After reviewing those submissions, the Court concluded the action was not timely and therefore denied the motion for default judgment. See Bathiard, 317 F.Supp.3d at 143. The Court reasoned that “special circumstances”-including that FSIA suits “implicate[] international relations and comity” and that “several decades of time [had] passed between the events at issue here and the filing of this suit”-justified discretionary sua sponte consideration of the statute of limitations. Id. at 138-40.

         Bathiard's case was consolidated on appeal with five others where the district court had raised the statute of limitations sua sponte and dismissed FSIA claims as untimely. Maalouf, 923 F.3d at 1103. The D.C. Circuit disagreed with that practice. Noting the background principle that parties must raise affirmative defenses or lose claim to them, the Circuit reasoned that the FSIA did not fit into the “small number of narrow, carefully defined contexts” in which courts can raise them on their own. Id. at 1109. Those contexts, the Circuit explained, “share a common, defining feature, ” namely “that the circumstances of a case must squarely implicate the institutional interests of the judiciary[.]” Id. at 1110. “And, ” it continued, “in none of these situations was the defendant on whose behalf the court acted entirely absent from the litigation.” Id. Because the sovereign defendants in the cases had defaulted, the cases fell outside the orbit of those heretofore recognized exceptions. Id. at 1110-12 (explaining why sua sponte consideration is only appropriate where “judiciary's own interests are implicated and the forfeiting party is present in the litigation”). The Circuit also explained why the “special circumstances” this Court and others found compelling, including the comity concerns, did not counsel in favor of sua sponte consideration of FSIA's statute of limitations. Id. at 1112-13.

         On remand, then, there is no statute of limitations bar to Bathiard's claim. The Court therefore turns to considering whether Bathiard's motion otherwise satisfies the prerequisites for default judgment under the FSIA.

         II. Legal Standard

         The FSIA provides the sole basis for obtaining jurisdiction over a foreign state in a United States court. The statute generally shields foreign sovereigns from being haled into court, but carves out exceptions allowing certain kinds of lawsuits to proceed. See Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela v. Helmerich & Payne Int'l Drilling Co., 137 S.Ct. 1312, 1320 (2017). One such exception greenlights lawsuits against foreign countries that have been designated by the U.S. government as state sponsors of terrorism when the plaintiff seeks money damages for personal injury or death resulting from the defendant country's involvement in “an act of torture, extrajudicial killing, aircraft sabotage, hostage taking, or the provision of material support or resources for such an act.” 28 U.S.C. § 1605A. As originally enacted in 1996, this provision applied solely to U.S. nationals; it was amended in 2008 to also allow federal government employees who are not nationals to bring suits for personal injuries and deaths occurring while acting within the scope of their employment. See Sheikh v. Republic of Sudan, 172 F.Supp.3d 124, 126 (D.D.C. 2016).

         Under the FSIA, a plaintiff may obtain a default judgment when the defendant fails to enter an appearance. 28 U.S.C. § 1608(e); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(b)(2). “[E]ntry of a default judgment is not automatic.” Goldstein v. Islamic Republic of Iran, No. 16-CV-2507, 2018 WL 6329452, at *2 (D.D.C. Dec. 4, 2018) (citation omitted). First, the Court must consider whether it has subject-matter jurisdiction over the action, James Madison Ltd. by Hecht v. Ludwig, 82 F.3d 1085, 1092 (D.C. Cir. 1996), and whether it has personal jurisdiction over the defendants, Mwani v. bin Laden, 417 F.3d 1, 6-7 (2005). Id. Even then, a plaintiff must establish her right to relief “by evidence satisfactory to the court.” 28 U.S.C. § 1608(e). Thus, rather than accept unsupported allegations as true, the Court must examine the plaintiff's allegations and any proof provided to ensure the plaintiff has carried her burden. See, e.g., Bluth v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 203 F.Supp.3d 1, 17 (D.D.C. 2016). Generally, a party seeking to establish its right to relief “may rely upon uncontroverted factual allegations that are supported by affidavits.” Worley v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 75 F.Supp.3d 311, 319 (D.D.C. 2014) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         III. Analysis

         A. Thr ...

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