A Powerful Message in a Wrongful Death Case Against the Syrian Government

Nearly three years ago I wrote a piece about how the U.S. courts can hold other governments accountable for their crimes. We are all familiar with the concept that members of foreign governments appear to be “immune” from lawsuits in the American courts. However, this so-called" “sovereign immunity” is not without exception.

Today, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, ruled that the Syrian government is liable to the family of deceased war correspondent Marie Colvin. Judge Jackson awarded Ms. Colvin’s family in excess of $3 million for the wrongful death of Ms. Colvin. In so doing, Judge Jackson found that the Syrian government’s military and intelligence purposely tracked the whereabouts of Ms. Colvin and ultimately gunned her down, along with a news photographer.

When I described this significant action in 2016, back at a time when the lawsuit was recently filed, I noted that its importance was based in the fact that it was able to proceed (hopefully to judgment); the existence of the legal judgment was more significant than whether the family was able to get Syria to pay the damages. That still is the case.

Ms. Colvin’s life was recently portrayed in the movie, “A Private War.” In her life she shed light on injustice; in her death, her family and Judge Berman have continued her courageous efforts.

By way of further background, my 2016 piece follows:

“Journalism, Jurisdiction and (hopefully) Justice in a U.S. Court”

Marie Colvin was a highly-respected journalist based in Syria. Officially reporting for The Sunday Times of London, she also made herself available to other news outlets. In fact, it may have been her last interviews with the BBC, Channel 4 and CNN’s Anderson Cooper that sealed her death warrant with Syrian intelligence. She and a colleague were struck and killed by Syrian rocket fire at the Media Center in the besieged town of Homs, Syria in February 2012.

The story of this tragic death is described in riveting detail in a wrongful death complaint filed over the weekend in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. While legal complaints often are dry, technical documents, Marie Colvin’s reflects the decedent’s talent for presenting a story and facts in a compelling way.

Under the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), Marie Colvin’s sister and niece are able to bring a wrongful death action against state-sponsored terrorist organizations. The Colvin lawsuit represents a recognized exception to the doctrine of sovereign immunity that protects other countries from suit.

Marie Colvin was a U.S. citizen, though she was a resident in the U.K. for some time. Venue in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is specified. Both compensatory and punitive damages are available under the FSIA. Moreover, the FSIA and its case law anticipate the legal difficulties of serving the defendant and entering judgment; understandably, executing on a judgment continues to be problematic.

The real potential for Marie Colvin’s suit is not the potential for compensation. Rather, even if the named Defendants never formally “answer” the allegations in this federal court, the Colvin attorneys see a more fundamental benefit. FSIA provides a framework to develop the factual and legal contentions described in the Complaint AND have the federal judge enter judgment, accepting these contentions as fact.

Even in her death, Marie Colvin still seeks truth and accountability.

Mari Bush