In September 2016, Congress approved the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). The bill, which was introduced by Senator John Cornyn in 2015, allows victims to sue foreign sponsors of terrorist attacks for damages.
Though the bill received bipartisan support and unanimous approval in the Senate, it required the first overturn of a veto in Obama’s presidency. Obama argued that JASTA would do more harm than good by potentially making the U.S. vulnerable to retaliation from Saudi Arabia and lawsuits in foreign courts.
Two days after Congress’s final vote, the first lawsuit was filed by a 9/11 widow against Saudi Arabia.
JASTA Changes History of Foreign Sovereign Immunity
The bill amends the almost 40-year-old Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act which previously protected foreign governments and their heads of state from being sued in other countries.
Civil claims can now be filed against foreign governments for acts of violence and terrorism that occur on U.S. soil. An important change is that the plotting and planning of acts of violence do not have to happen in America (an obstacle in pre-JASTA trials). It also holds foreign governments accountable for aiding and abetting acts of violence, regardless of whether or not they performed the acts themselves.
Foreign Immunity Exemptions Resulted in Justice for Terror Victims
Foreign government litigation is rare, though not entirely unheard of. Previously, exemptions to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act were restricted to commercial activity and state sponsors of terrorism (currently Iran, Syria and Sudan are on that list).
Libya faced a lawsuit for their involvement in the 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 explosion. After failing to pay families of the American victims $2.7 billion, they received a verdict in 2008 for $1.5 billion. Payment terms included lifting U.N. and U.S. sanctions against Libya and taking them off the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Iran is also no stranger to litigation from U.S. citizens. Victims of the 1997 triple-suicide bombing in Jerusalem received a $423.5 million settlement. And earlier this year, the Supreme Court allowed victims of the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings to sue Iran for $2 billion in frozen Iranian funds.
Is Saudi Arabia Responsible for 9/11?
Saudi Arabia has received the bulk of media attention since JASTA’s introduction. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia. Though the Kingdom denies their involvement in the terrorist attacks, they spent $3 million and hired two lobbying firms to fight JASTA.
The 9/11 Commission didn’t find evidence of direct involvement of the Saudi government or senior officials in the terrorist attacks, but, they noted, “Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of al Qaeda funding.”
The “28 pages” of the 9/11 Commission Report, which were only declassified this year, reveal more details of a possible connection between Saudi Arabia and the hijackers. The pages indirectly connect al Qaeda to the former Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Phone numbers linking back to the ambassador, including those for an embassy bodyguard and Bandar’s property management firm, were found on al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah’s phone.
Because of these connections to the Saudi government, starting in 2002 victims tried to sue the Kingdom for sponsoring the terrorist attacks. However, all of the cases were thrown out up until now because of foreign sovereign immunity.
Pentagon Widow Files the First Lawsuit Against Saudi Arabia
Within two days of JASTA’s approval, Stephanie DeSimone filed the first lawsuit against Saudi Arabia for wrongful death and intentional infliction of emotional distress. She was two months pregnant when she lost her husband, Navy Commander Patrick Dunn, in the Pentagon attack on 9/11.
The lawsuit claims that the Saudi government provided material support to al Qaeda and was aware of plans for a terrorist attack on 9/11. It seeks an undisclosed amount in damages for the “severe and permanent personal injuries” she and her daughter have suffered as a result.
9/11 Cost Billions in Damages and Lost Wages
14 million square feet of Lower Manhattan’s office space was destroyed in the attacks on September 11, 2001. There were 400 businesses just in the towers alone. Insured losses totaled $40 billion after property damage, business interruption and loss of life were accounted for.
Insured losses totaled $40 billion.
The financial effects were not restricted to the businesses that were physically destroyed. For days, traveling in and out of the city was nearly impossible, and vehicle traffic in and out of Lower Manhattan was prohibited for an entire month. This cost an already unsteady economy even more as business came to a halt.
Though federal grants like the Retail Recovery Grant and World Trade Center Small Business Recovery Fund were created shortly after the attacks, thousands of businesses had to close their doors due to the hefty losses they suffered. Overall, these totaled:
- $22 billion in business interruption
- 18,000 small businesses destroyed, disrupted or displaced
- 65,000 jobs relocated
Additionally, victims’ families and the economy are still feeling the effects of lost wages:
- 430,000 job months were lost.
- $2.8 billion in wages was lost in the subsequent three months.
- $8.7 billion (or $11.5 billion today)—the estimated lifetime potential earnings of World Trade Center victims—was lost.
Emergency Workers Suffer from Cancer and “World Trade Center Cough”
Outside of the economic impact, survivors who were near Ground Zero are still battling the effects of the toxic dust that coated nearly everything in the area. Studies have discovered that the dust had high pH levels of 10 and 11 (7.4 is considered healthy) and contained particles of everything from concrete to pictures and even hair and bones.
Dust inhalation is responsible for 5,400 cancer diagnoses to date and the birth of “the World Trade Center cough.” Furthermore, a Mount Sinai study of 27,000 World Trade Center responders found that 42% of them had abnormal lung function. It’s estimated though that as many as 400,000 people who lived and worked near Ground Zero will be affected by 9/11-related diseases as this population continues to age.
ClassAction.com Attorneys Are Exploring JASTA
If you suffered financial, physical, or personal injury because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, you may be entitled to compensation. Morgan & Morgan is one of the nation’s largest and most award-winning law firms. With a team of more than 300 lawyers and 1,500 support staff, including former FBI investigators, we have the experience and resources for complex litigation such as this. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation case review.