Opati v. Republic of Sudan

Justia Summary

In 1998, al Qaeda operatives detonated truck bombs outside the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Victims sued the Republic of Sudan under the state-sponsored terrorism exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA, 28 U.S.C. 1605(a)(7)), which included a bar on punitive damages for suits under any of the sovereign immunity exceptions. In 2008, Congress amended the FSIA in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). NDAA section 1083(c)(2) creates a cause of action for acts of terror that provides for punitive damages; it gave effect to existing lawsuits that had been “adversely affected” by prior law “as if” they had been originally filed under the new section 1605A(c). Section 1083(c)(3) provided a time-limited opportunity for plaintiffs to file new actions “arising out of the same act or incident” as an earlier action and claim those benefits. The plaintiffs amended their complaint to include section 1605A(c) claims. The district court awarded the plaintiffs approximately $10.2 billion, including roughly $4.3 billion in punitive damages. The D.C. Circuit held that the plaintiffs were not entitled to punitive damages because Congress had included no statement in NDAA section 1083 clearly authorizing punitive damages for pre-enactment conduct.

The Supreme Court vacated and remanded. Even assuming that Sudan may claim the benefit of the presumption of prospective effect, Congress was as clear as it could have been when it expressly authorized punitive damages under section 1605A(c) and explicitly made that new cause of action available to remedy certain past acts of terrorism. The court of appeals must also reconsider its decision concerning the availability of punitive damages for state law claims.