Suing a State Sponsor of Terror: At the Crossroads of Personal Injury and Geopolitics
On Tuesday, May 17, 2016, the United States Senate passed a bill that, if signed into law, would remove sovereign immunity and clear the way for "International Terror" personal injury claims.
Under the proposed law, any person, entity, or country that knowingly or recklessly provides material support to a person or group that poses a significant risk of committing an act of terrorism targeting the United States would be liable in US Federal Court for injuries caused to US nationals. This gives our citizens and residents a cause of action against state sponsors of terror on US soil. While the law is a reaction to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks (on or after which date the law would apply), it would also include sponsors of other terror attacks, such as those in San Bernardino, CA.
The most important, and controversial, section of the law removes sovereign immunity for any foreign government that is proven to have knowingly or recklessly sponsored an act of terror on US soil. Saudi Arabia is outraged by this provision, as some claim they provided material support for the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Therefore, the Saudi government could theoretically be found liable in US courts for millions of dollars in damages owed to victims and their families. The Saudis, for their part, have claimed that unreleased portions of the 9/11 investigation report clear them of any responsibility.
To recover for injuries resulting from an act of terror, the claimant (or their family in the event of death) would have to prove that the person, group, or foreign government provided material support or resources to the perpetrators and knew or should have known that they would likely commit an act of terrorism.
Providing a civil remedy for victims of terrorism is a powerful way to offer compensation to Americans who suffer at the hands of international actors. The threat of civil liability would also hopefully deter persons, groups, or foreign governments from sponsoring future acts of terror targeting US nationals.
Citing the potential for political and foreign policy fallout, the President has stated that he would veto the bill (Saudi Arabia has already threatened to sell large amounts of US securities and assets in retaliation if the bill becomes law). Despite this, the bill passed the Senate by a unanimous voice vote on Tuesday. It is unclear if the House of Representatives will also pass the bill, if the President will ultimately use his veto power, and whether both houses of Congress can or will override the veto.