In 1991, the the Kurdish Workers Party (“PKK”), a designated terrorist organization, kidnapped a group of American biblical archaeologists leading an excavation in Turkey.
The Americans, who were searching to discover the location of the remains of the biblical Noah’s Ark, were held hostage for 21 days before they finally were able to escape. The captives were subjected to brutal treatment, forced 18 hour marches and repeatedly assaulted by their PKK captors. The terrorists made ransom demands to the Turkish and American governments.
In July 2001, plaintiffs filed a complaint against Syria pursuant to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act’s terrorism exception (FSIA) in the U.S. District court of the District of Columbia.
Marvin Wilson and the family of the deceased Ronald Wyatt brought the lawsuit against Syria alleging that Damascus had allowed the PKK to operate from Syrian territory, and provided financial support and training to the terrorist group. The civil action sought both compensation and punitive damages from Syria.
In 2005, Congress repealed the former state-sponsored terrorism exception of the FSIA and replaced it with an updated version, codified at 28 US.C. ss 1605A. The plaintiffs filed a new action against Syria based on the updated terms, and when Syria did not file an answer, a default judgment was entered against Syria.
Under the FSIA, a court cannot simply enter a default judgment; the plaintiffs must establish their claim by evidence satisfactory to the court. The DC District Court thus reviewed the evidence and in a December 2012 decision granted plaintiffs’ default judgment. Chief District Court Judge Royce Lamberth ruled that Syria was vicariously liable for the kidnapping, and found that the government of Syria was responsible for providing material support and resources to the PKK. The Court awarded the families $38 million dollars in compensatory damages and levied a $300 million punitive damages award against the Syrian government as well.
The court further found that the lower courts award of $5,000,000 in pain and suffering damages to each kidnap victim was appropriate. Moreover, the court held the brutal character of the kidnapping, the significant harm it caused both the hostage plaintiffs and their families, along with Syria’s demonstrated and well-known policy to encourage terrorism merited an award of punitive damages. Thus, the court employed the methodology used in Gates, and upheld the punitive damages award of $300,000,000 against Syria.