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Hamen v. Islamic Republic of Iran

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 10, 2019

JENNIFER HAMEN, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          RANDOLPH D. MOSS United States District Judge.

         In October 2015, Mark McAlister and John Hamen, private contractors sent to assist in the renovation of a hotel in Yemen used to house United Nations personnel, were abducted from the airport in Sana'a, Yemen. Dkt. 57 at 1. This abduction was carried out by members of Yemeni militant group known as the Houthis. Id. The Houthis murdered Hamen sixteen days later and held McAlister as a hostage for over six months. Id. at 1, 17. In the aftermath of this tragedy, Plaintiffs Mark McAlister, the estate of John Hamen, and eleven of their family members, brought this action against the Islamic Republic of Iran (“Iran”) for “provi[ding] material military and economic support” to the Houthis, alleging that the violence the Houthis inflicted on McAlister and Hamen was “an expected and welcomed result of such support.” Dkt. 1 at 17-18 (Compl. ¶¶ 94, 106). Iran was duly served yet failed to respond to the complaint or otherwise to appear. See Dkt. 57 at 1.

         To establish subject-matter jurisdiction, Plaintiffs invoked the state-sponsored terrorism exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (“FSIA”), 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(a). Dkt. 1 at 3. And, for a cause of action, Plaintiffs relied on § 1605A(c), alleging that Iran provided “material support” to the Houthis, which used that support to engage in acts of extrajudicial killing, hostage taking, and torture. Dkt. 1 at 18 (citing 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(c)). On August 7, 2019, the Court issued a decision finding that (1) the Houthis “committed ‘hostage taking' . . . with respect to McAlister” and “committed an extrajudicial killing of Hamen, ” Dkt. 57 at 26; (2) “Iran provided ‘material support or resources' to the Houthi militants in the form of weapons, financial support, and training, both directly and indirectly through Hezbollah, ” id.; and (3) “this support ‘caused' the hostage-taking of McAlister and extrajudicial killing of Hamen, ” id. at 31. Based on these findings, the Court held that it had subject-matter jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' claims, see Id. (citing 28 U.S.C. §§ 1330(a), 1605A(a)(1)), and that Iran was liable for Plaintiffs' injuries and losses, id. at 32. The Court, accordingly, granted Plaintiffs' motion for entry of default judgment against Iran. Dkt. 58.

         For assistance in evaluating Plaintiffs' damages, the Court referred the case to a special master, Deborah Greenspan, to prepare a report and recommendations regarding compensatory, but not punitive, damages. See Dkt. 59 (Order Appointing Special Master). The Special Master has now filed her report and recommendations. See Dkt. 60 (Special Master Report). In preparing the report, the Special Master reviewed sworn testimony, video depositions, medical records and autopsies, and expert reports, all of which have been filed with this Court. See Dkt. 32-52. The report lays out the effects that the abduction, hostage taking, and murder had on the family members of Mark McAlister and John Hamen, and carefully analyzes Plaintiffs' claims for damages under the applicable framework for state-sponsored terrorism cases. The Court thanks the Special Master for her excellent and expeditious assistance.

         As explained below, the Court adopts the Special Master's proposed findings and recommendations, subject to the modifications set forth below.

         ANALYSIS

         As an initial matter, the Court agrees with, and adopts without modification, the Special Master's findings of fact, all of which are well explained and amply supported by the record. Tracking the Special Master's report, the Court will first review her conclusions with respect to the economic and non-economic damages that those findings support and will then turn to the question of punitive damages, which is not addressed in the Special Master's report.

         A. Economic Damages

         “Section 1605A explicitly provides that foreign state-sponsors of terrorism are liable to victims for economic losses stemming from injuries or death sustained as a result of the foreign state's conduct.” Thuneibat v. Syrian Arab Republic, 167 F.Supp.3d 22, 48 (D.D.C. 2016) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(c)). Traditionally, plaintiffs may prove economic losses by the submission of a forensic economist's expert report. See Roth v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 78 F.Supp.3d 379, 402 (D.D.C. 2015). When evaluating an expert's calculations, the Court must consider the “reasonableness and foundation of the assumptions relied upon by the expert.” Id. at 402 (citing Reed v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 845 F.Supp.2d 204, 214 (D.D.C. 2012)).

         The Estate of John Hamen seeks to recover the loss of income and benefits stemming from Hamen's murder. In support of this claim, the Estate submits the affidavit and testimony of economist Dr. James V. Koch, a Visitors' Professor of Economics and President Emeritus at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. Dkt. 32-6. As the Special Master observes, Dr. Koch was a professor of economics at several universities, has received numerous honorary degrees, published numerous books and articles on economics, and served as a consultant or expert witness on behalf of numerous law firms and other organizations for various matters. See Dkt. 60 at 18-19 (citing March 5, 2018 Expert Affidavit of James V. Koch, (“Koch Affidavit”), Dkt. 32-6 at ¶¶ 1-2 and Exh. A (curriculum vitae)); see also Warmbier v. Democratic People's Republic of Korea, 356 F.Supp.3d 30, 55-56 (D.D.C. 2018) (adopting Dr. Koch's economic loss calculations in a Section 1650A(c) case). In the view of the Special Master, Dr. Koch is qualified as an expert for the purpose of determining economic loss. Dkt. 60 at 19. The Court agrees.

         Moving to Dr. Koch's findings, the Special Master found that his assumptions were “reasonable, ” that his methods were “consistent with generally accepted practices, ” and that he “appl[ied] appropriate assumptions based on reasonable and well-documented sources.” Id. at 20. Accordingly, the Special Master recommends that the Court adopt Dr. Koch's proposal as the award of economic loss for the Estate of John Hamen. Id. The Court adopts his recommendations and will award economic loss damages to the Estate of John Hamen in the amount of $2, 769, 948.

         B. Non-Economic Damages

         1.Pain and Suffering for Mark McAlister

         Plaintiff McAlister seeks $10, 000 in damages to compensate for the pain and suffering he suffered each day he was held captive, for a total amount of $1, 920, 000.[1] Dkt. 29 at 19. Placing a dollar amount on the kind of harm suffered by McAlister “can be difficult.” Moradi v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 77 F.Supp.3d 57, 70 (D.D.C. 2015) (internal quotes and citation omitted). There is no market, economic study, or scientific analysis that the Court can employ. Courts do find significant guidance, however, in the principle that “individuals with similar injuries receive similar awards.” See, e.g., Harrison v. Republic of Sudan, 882 F.Supp.2d 23, 48 (D.D.C. 2012) (internal quotations omitted). With that principle in mind, McAlister's claim of $10, 000 per day is well-founded: a “$10, 000 per day of captivity has evolved in this [d]istrict as a general standard for cases of prolonged and abusive unlawful detention brought under the FSIA.” Azadeh v. Gov't of the Islamic Republic of Iran, No. 16-1467, 2018 WL 4232913, at *18 (D.D.C. 2018); see also Moradi, 77 F.Supp.3d at 70 (collecting cases). Given that McAlister's prolonged and abusive detention is comparable to that of other victims where the $10, 000 per day rate has been used, see, e.g., Azadeh, 2018 WL 4232913, at *11 ($10, ...


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