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Dibenedetto v. Iranian Ministry of Information And Security

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 30, 2019

DAVID DIBENEDETTO, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
IRANIAN MINISTRY OF INFORMATION AND SECURITY, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          TANYA S. CHUTKAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiffs, victims of the 1983 suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon and their immediate family members, have sued Defendants Iranian Ministry of Information and Security (“MOIS”) and the Islamic Republic of Iran pursuant to the state-sponsored terrorism exception of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (“FSIA”), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1330, 1602 et seq., which provides a federal right of action against foreign states, id. § 1605A. (ECF No. 1 (“Compl.”).) Defendants have not answered or otherwise participated in this litigation, although they were served with summons and a copy of the Complaint on October 18, 2017. The Clerk of the Court therefore declared them in default. (ECF No. 18 (“Clerk’s Entry of Default”).)

         Plaintiffs move, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 55(b), for default judgment as to liability against Defendants. (ECF No. 19 (“Pls.’ Mot. Default. J.”).) They also move, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(e)(1), for appointment of Alan L. Balaran as special master to consider all issues regarding compensatory damages. (ECF No. 20 (“Mot. to Appt. Special Master”).) For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiffs’ motions are GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On October 23, 1983, the United States Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon was attacked by terrorists, resulting in the death of about 421 U.S. servicemen and injuries to many others.

         This is not the first case in this court arising out of the 1983 bombing.[1] “Over two days in March 2003, the Court, [in Peterson v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 264 F.Supp.2d 46 (D.D.C. 2003)], conducted a bench trial during which it heard testimony from lay and expert witnesses and received documentary evidence concerning the horrific attack, the grave injuries many suffered, defendants’ involvement in the bombing, and their support for international terrorism more broadly.” Fain v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 856 F.Supp.2d 109, 114 (D.D.C. 2012). Following the conclusion of that bench trial, the Peterson Court determined,

that it is beyond question that Hezbollah and its agents received massive material and technical support from the Iranian government . . . . [and] that it is highly unlikely that this attack could have resulted in such loss of life without the assistance of regular military forces, such as those of Iran. The Court then determined, as a legal matter, that MOIS actively participated in the attack and was “acting as an agent of . . . Iran” when doing so, and thus defendants Iran and MOIS were “jointly and severally liable to the plaintiffs” for damages.

Id. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). It then appointed a special master to determine the appropriate amount of damages. Id.

         In moving for default judgment in this case, Plaintiffs ask the court to take judicial notice of the liability decisions entered in Peterson and Fain, pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 201(b), because all three cases arise out of the same core facts and circumstances. (Pls.’ Mot. Default J. at 1.)

         A court may take judicial notice of facts “not subject to reasonable dispute” where those facts are either “generally known within the trial court’s territorial jurisdiction” or “can be accurately and readily determined from sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned.” Fed.R.Evid. 201(b). “This ability to take notice of adjudicative facts extends to judicial notice of court records in related proceedings.” Rimkus v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 750 F.Supp.2d 163, 171 (D.D.C. 2010). Consequently, in response to “the multiplicity of FSIA-related litigation in this jurisdiction, Courts in this District have thus frequently taken judicial notice of earlier, related proceedings.” Id. (collecting cases); see also Bathiard v. Islamic Republic of Iran, No. 1:16-CV-1549 (CRC), 2019 WL 3412983, at *3 (D.D.C. July 29, 2019) (collecting cases). And they have done so when the proceedings have taken place in front of a different judge. See Foley v. Syrian Arab Republic, 249 F.Supp.3d 186, 191 (D.D.C. 2017) (“Moreover, courts have taken notice of facts found in earlier proceedings in this District even when those proceedings have taken place in front of a different judge.”); see also Bathiard, 2019 WL 3412983, at *3 (taking judicial notice of factual findings from a hearing before another judge).

         Having reviewed the pleadings filed in connection with this matter, and the Peterson and Fain decisions, the court finds it appropriate to take judicial notice here. In so doing, the court is mindful that although it may bypass “the formality of having that evidence reproduced, ” it must still reach its own independent findings of fact and conclusions of law in the cases before it. Rimkus, 750 F.Supp.2d at 172.

         II. FINDINGS OF FACT

         Before entering default judgment, in accord with 28 U.S.C. § 1608, a court must ensure that Plaintiffs have established a right to relief “by evidence satisfactory to the court.” 28 U.S.C. § 1608(e). “This 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, 750 F.Supp.2d at 171 (citing Oveissi v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 498 F.Supp.2d 268, 272 (D.D.C.2007)). Therefore, in addition to taking judicial notice, in a FSIA case a court must examine “uncontroverted factual allegations, which are supported by . . . documentary and affidavit evidence, ” as well as testimony and documentation in the form of affidavits. Anderson v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 753 F.Supp.2d 68, 74 (D.D.C. 2010) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         Taking into consideration the facts established in Plaintiffs’ proffered affidavits as well as the decisions in Peterson and Fain, the court will make findings of fact. In so doing, the court does not attempt to replicate the fulsome accounts of the 1983 bombing in earlier decisions, and instead notes only what is required to support its conclusions of law.[2]

         A. Plaintiffs

         Plaintiff Adam Webb was born in the United States of America and has at all times been a United States citizen. (ECF No. 19-2 (“Affidavits Pt. 1”) at 1.) On October 23, 1983, he was serving as a Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps and was stationed in Beirut as a member of the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit (“MAU”). (Id.) He was injured physically and emotionally by the attack. (Id. at 2.) His wife, mother, the estate of his late father, his siblings, and the estate of his late son are also Plaintiffs in this litigation. (Id. at 3, 10, 20, 39; ECF No. 19-3 (“Affidavits Pt. 2”) at 17, 32, 48.)

         Plaintiff Lorenzo Almanza was born in the United States of America and has at all times been a United States citizen. (Affidavits Pt. 2 at 4.) On October 23, 1983, he was serving as a Petty Officer in the Navy and was stationed in Beirut. (Id.) He was injured physically and emotionally by the attack. (Id. at 5–6.) His mother, siblings, and estate of his late brother are also Plaintiffs in this litigation. (Id. at 1, 6, 14, 24; Affidavits Pt. 1 at 4, 32.)

         Plaintiff Richard Zierhut was born in the United States of America and has at all times been a United States citizen. (Affidavits Pt. 2 at 27.) On October 23, 1983, he was serving as a Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps and was stationed in Beirut. (Id.) He was injured physically and emotionally by the attack. (Id. at 29.)

         On October 23, 1983, Steven Forrester was deployed with the United States Marine Corps in Beirut. (Affidavits Pt. 1 at 7.) He was killed in the bombing. (Id. at 8.) His sister, Angela Forrester, who was born in the United States of America and has at all times been a United States citizen, is a Plaintiff in this litigation along with Steven Forrester’s mother, brother, wife, children, and estate. (Id. at 9, 13, 25, 36; Affidavits Pt. 2 at 7, 10. 45.)

         On October 23, 1983, Thomas DiBenedetto was deployed with the United States Marine Corps in Beirut. (Affidavits Pt. 1 at 16.) He was killed in the bombing. (Id. at 17.) His brother, David DiBenedetto, who was born in the United States of America and has at all times been a United States citizen, is a Plaintiff in this litigation along with Thomas DiBenedetto’s estate and his other siblings. (Id. at 19, 29, 42; Affidavits Pt. 2 at 41.)

         On October 23, 1983, Lex Trahan was deployed with the United States Marine Corps in Beirut. (Affidavits Pt. 2 at 21.) He was killed in the bombing. (Id. at 22.) His father, Percy Trahan, who was born in the United States of America and has at all times been a United States citizen, is a Plaintiff in this litigation along with Lex Trahan’s estate and mother. (Id. at 22, 38.)

         On October 23, 1983, Mark Payne was deployed with the United States Marine Corps in Beirut. (Affidavits Pt. 2 at 35.) He was killed in the bombing. (Id. at 36.) His mother, Sandra Lainhart, who was born in the United States of America and has at all times been a United States citizen, is a Plaintiff in this litigation along with Mark Payne’s estate. (Id.)

         B. Defendants

         Defendant Iran “has been designated a State Sponsor of Terrorism (SST) for providing support for acts of international terrorism” since January 19, 1984. U.S. Dep’t of State, Fact Sheet, Designation Of The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (2019), https://www.state.gov/designation-of-the-islamic-revolutionary-guard-corps; see also Fain, 856 F.Supp.2d at 116 (“Defendant Iran is a foreign state and has been designated a state sponsor of terrorism pursuant to section 69(j) of the Export Administration Act of 1979, 50 U.S.C. § 2405(j), continuously since January 19, 1984.” (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         Defendant MOIS served as Iran’s “intelligence agency” that “acted as a conduit for the Islamic Republic of Iran’s provision of funds to Hezbollah, [and] provided explosives to Hezbollah, ” and at all relevant times “exercised operational control over Hezbollah.”[3] Peterson, 264 F.Supp.2d at 53. It was not a “rogue agency.” Id.

         C. The Attack on the Marine Barracks in Beirut, Lebanon

         On October 23, 1983, Hezbollah operatives drove an explosive-laden truck into the Marine barracks in Beiruit. Id. at 56. When the truck reached the center of the barracks, a bomb detonated. Id. The explosion was “equal to between 15, 000 to 21, 000 pounds of TNT” and “the largest non-nuclear explosion that had ever been detonated on the face of the Earth.” Id. The force ripped locked doors from their doorjambs 256 feet away and the “four-story Marine barracks was reduced to fifteen feet of rubble.” Id.

         At the time of the explosion “the members of the 24th MAU, and the service members supporting the unit, were clearly non-combatants operating under peacetime rules of engagement” in Beirut. Id. at 50. As a result of the explosion, 241 service members were killed and many others were severely injured. Id. at 58.

         D. Iranian Involvement in the Attack

         Before the attack, MOIS directed the Iranian ambassador to Syria to contact a terrorist leader and “instruct him to have his group instigate attacks against the multinational coalition in Lebanon, and ‘to take spectacular action against the United States Marines.’” Id. at 54. Following MOIS’ directive, the Iranian ambassador to Syria instructed an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp. Officer to attend a meeting with Hezbollah operatives at which the attack on the Marine barracks was planned. Id. at 54–55.

         Iran then provided Hezbollah and its agents with “massive material and technical support” to assist with the attack on the Marine barracks. Id. at 58. The quantity of bulk form pentaerythritol tetranitrate, the sophistication of the attack, and “the devastating effect of the detonation of the charge indicates that it is highly unlikely that this attack could have resulted in such ...


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