The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled against victims and families of the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in their lawsuit against Sudan.
The court, 8-1, said the victims did not properly serve notice of their lawsuit to the government of Sudan.
The decision clears the way for lower courts to throw out the more than $314 million default judgment that was awarded to the families.
The case arose from the bombing of the USS Cole, in which 17 US Navy sailors were killed and 42 were wounded when a boat pulled up alongside the USS Cole and exploded while docked at the port of Aden, Yemen.
Surviving sailors and their family members brought suit against Sudan in 2010 alleging that al Qaeda was responsible for the attack and that Sudan had provided material support to al Qaeda. While federal law generally bars civil suits against foreign states in the United States, it provides exceptions, however, for a country that has been designated a state sponsor of terrorism.
The challengers served a summons against Sudan by mailing papers to the Minister of Foreign Affairs via the embassy located in Washington, DC. After Sudan failed to respond within 60 days specified by law, the court entered default against Sudan for just over $314 million. Finally, in 2014, Sudan appealed, with its US-based attorney saying that the summons couldn’t be served to the embassy and had to be sent “by any form of mail requiring a signed” receipt “addressed to the head of the ministry of foreign affairs.”
“There are circumstances in which the rule of law demands adherence to strict requirements even when the equities of a particular case may seem to point in the opposite direction,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his majority opinion.
The United States argued in support of Sudan, saying that while it “deeply sympathizes with the extraordinary injuries suffered” by the victims, mailing papers to the foreign minister at a place other than the country at issue was not authorized by law.
The US does not accept such service in its embassies abroad and a ruling in favor of the challengers would complicate foreign relations, Justice Department attorney Erica Ross argued.
“The United States has embassies all over the world,” she said, and “deputizing each of those to accept service on behalf of the United States is quite problematic.”
Steve Vladeck, a CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas Law School, said it could make it harder for victims to challenge actions by foreign countries.
“Today’s decision, although a technical one, will make it more difficult for plaintiffs to sue in US courts those countries that have unreliable regular mail service,” Vladeck said.
“Especially in cases like this one, where the suit is brought against a country designated by the State Department as a ‘state sponsor of terrorism,’ requiring plaintiffs to serve their claims against the foreign ministry in the country’s capital, as opposed to its embassy to the US or the UN, could significantly complicate the ability of these cases to go forward,” he added.
A lower court upheld the judgment, ruling that the Foreign Service Immunities Act “does not specify a location where the papers are to be sent” and that nothing in the law requires that the papers be mailed to a location in the foreign state.”
“If Congress had wanted to require that the mailing be sent to the minister of foreign affairs at the principal office of the ministry in the foreign country, it could have said so – but it did not,” the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals held.
In court papers, Sudan’s lawyers said that Sudan “vehemently denies the allegations that it provided material support” to al Qaeda or caused the attack on the Cole.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, saying “there is no evidence in this case suggesting that Sudan’s Embassy declined the service packet addressed to its foreign minister – as it was free to do.”