Showing posts with label punitive damages. Show all posts
Showing posts with label punitive damages. Show all posts

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Tort liability brakes U.S. policy shift on Sudan, marks crossroads of past, future where Africa meets Arabia

Street corner in the Arabian Market district of Khartoum
(RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

With economic sanctions exacting an intensified toll amid the pandemic and humanitarian crises fraying the peace at political borders, 40 million people in the East African Republic of Sudan may hope that long awaited normalization of relations with the United States will bolster stability and produce prosperity.  Meanwhile, in Washington, American tort claims have thrown a wrench into the diplomatic works.

Smaller Sudan after 2011 (LouisianaFan CC BY-SA 3.0)

Unending War

Before its 2011 division into north and south, Sudan was the largest country in Africa.  Its location is strategically important.  Sudan borders Libya and Egypt to the north, the lifeline of the Nile flowing into the latter.  The country's Red Sea coast positions Port Sudan opposite Jeddah and Mecca.  Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR) sit to the west, and Eritrea and Ethiopia to the east—where more than 40,000 Ethiopian refugees have fled conflict and now strain Sudan's thin resources.  Tumultuous northern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda, the latter yielding the Nile, lie in reach of South Sudan's capital, Juba, along with a disputed stretch of border with Kenya.

At last abandoning imperial ambition in 1953, the British left Sudan to the tempest of regime rise-and-fall that tragically characterized post-colonial power vacuum in Africa.  The country declared itself independent in 1956, but for a quarter century, no one form of government would stick.  An Islamic state brought about some political consistency in 1983, but plenty of ills, too: reigniting civil war between north and south, and paving the path of three decades' dictatorship and an abysmal human rights record under President Omar al-Bashir, from 1989 to 2019.

Part of embassy bombing memorial in Dar es Salaam
(RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Relations with the United States went from bad to worse after Sudan backed Iraq in the 1990-91 Gulf War.  Osama bin Laden took up residence in Khartoum for five years at that time.  He built a favorable reputation for philanthropy by building legitimate businesses and financing infrastructure projects, such as the main highway, named for him, linking Khartoum to Port Sudan.  In 1993, the United States listed Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism.  Under U.S. pressure, Sudan expelled bin Laden in 1996.  But Sudan was not spared blame when al-Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, killing 224 people, including 12 U.S. citizens, and injuring thousands.  U.S. retaliation included a cruise-missile strike against a Khartoum chemical plant—unfortunately and very likely a target accused erroneously of complicity in chemical weapons manufacture.

Ironically, the bin Laden-orchestrated terror attacks of September 11, 2001, set Sudan and the United States on a winding road of fits and starts toward reconciliation.  U.S. President George W. Bush recognized the need for American allies on the East African doorstep to the Middle East.  U.S. policy leveraged austere sanctions to incentivize Sudanese cooperation in counter-terrorism, and the Bashir regime was supportive.

Sudan needed help, too.  The civil war between the Islamic government in Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), started in 1983, had never ended.  The exhausting conflict, which ultimately cost more than 2 million civilian lives, was dragging into one of the longest civil wars in modern history—besides that it was really a sequel to the never-quite-resolved first Sudanese civil war of 1955 to 1972, another tragically typical consequence, in part, of arbitrary colonial political borders.  Multi-national diplomatic interventions helped at last to draw the war to a close in 2005.  The peace agreement led to the secession of South Sudan in 2011, a development that seemed promising at the time, but since has seen the two states teetering ceaselessly on the brink of combustion.

A spellbinding sampling of the human toll of the civil war can be found in Dave Eggers's What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (2006).  Spanning events from 1983 to 2005, the book is an artfully novelized memoir of a real child refugee among Sudan's "lost boys."

In 2017, the Obama Administration further loosened sanctions on Sudan.  A coup in 2019 sent Bashir from office the same way he came in, and in 2020, Sudan reconstituted itself as a secular state.  Al-Bashir, 76, is now in prison for corruption.  Marking a significant policy reversal, the government has signaled that it might be willing to turn Bashir over to the International Criminal Court for prosecution in connection with the genocide in Darfur during the second civil war.  In October, the Trump administration moved to clear the way for U.S. businesses to reenter Sudan, bargaining the country's de-listing as a state sponsor of terrorism in exchange for Sudanese recognition of Israel.  The administration was accused of too-little-too-late effort to bolster its foreign policy portfolio in the run-up to the 2020 election, but, at this point, the end means more than the motive.

Persistent Perseverance

In short order, Sudan has transformed from war-torn religious state, ruled by a dictator accused of crimes against humanity, to secular constitutional democracy, pivotal in Middle East peace and primed for western commercial investment.  In other words, Sudan might be in the midst of a remarkably rapid transition from paradigmatic problematic state to African success story.

View of Khartoum and the Nile from Corinthia observation level
(RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Long acquainted with the hardships of war and sanctions, the Sudanese have persevered, developing a resilient infrastructure and an enviable standard of living, especially relative to neighbors such as the CAR, the DRC, and Eritrea.  Sudanese teens wield smartphones in the dustiest of wayside villages.  Sudan has oil and refining capacity, though the division of natural resources between north and south remains a key cause of simmering contention.  The Khartoum skyline is dotted with structures infamously financed by deliberate defiance of sanctions.  Representative is the Corinthia Hotel: opened in 2008, the oval-shaped building is called "Gaddafi's egg," because Libya paid for its €80m construction.

Wayside fuel and rest area, Shendi-Atbara Road, Al Buqayr
(RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

At present, Sudan has one arm tied behind its back.  Trucks sit idle in fuel queues.  Western credit cards don't work; cash is king.  For better and worse, local products, mostly MENA-manufactured, substitute for the usual globalized glut of soda and snack options in the convenience stores, excepting the universe's inexplicably irreducible constant, Coca-Cola.

If sanctions go away, an energizing flow of auto parts, industrial equipment, transnational banking services, and development of telecommunication and physical infrastructure will irrigate Sudan's thirsty landscape.  The new constitutional government will be boosted to a threshold on prosperity unprecedented in the nation's history.  Already in June, the UK announced a £150m commitment to ease democratic transition and coronavirus impact by combating inflation and poverty.  Sudan unbound stands poised to achieve African development in a region that's long been starved of a win.

But There's a Hitch

Tort liability in U.S. courts is presently a sticking point in negotiations over normalization of U.S.-Sudanese relations and the entry of American enterprise in Sudan.  In 1996, Congress amended the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) to allow civil lawsuits against foreign state actors for support of terrorism.  Survivors and families of victims of the 1998 embassy bombings sued Sudan in 2001.  The lawsuits floundered in the 20-aughts amid confusion over what plaintiffs, defendants, and causes of action Congress intended to authorize.  In 2008, Congress clarified the law on those questions and revived the earlier suits.

Subsequently, plaintiffs, numbering more than 700, won an award in federal court of $10.2bn, including $4.3bn in punitive damages.  The D.C. Circuit struck the punitive damages, doubting that Congress intended to authorize punitive recovery retroactively.  In May 2020, in Opati v. Republic of Sudan, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, vacating the striking of punitive damages and remanding for the lower courts to reconsider.  Litigation questions remain on remand.  The defense might yet challenge the constitutionality of the retroactive authorization of punitive damages, and it's not clear whether Congress intended foreign plaintiffs to be eligible for punitive awards.  Still, the massive compensatory award stands ripe for harvest.

Sen. Schumer in October (Senate Democrats CC BY 2.0)
All that litigation might, however, amount to naught if Congress acts again.  As a condition of the current agreement over sanctions and Israel, Sudan wants free of the Opati judgment.  In October, the State Department indicated willingness to negotiate immunity for Sudan against liability for past acts.  But that immunity would require another change of law, and Congress is not yet on board.

According to a report in Tuesday's New York Times, Sudan has offered a settlement of $335m, undoubtedly a more realistic number than multiple billions.  But Sudan has threatened to exit the agreement in whole if Congress doesn't authorize immunity by year's end.  Deadlocked legislators are trying to broker a compromise through a military spending bill in these first weeks of December.  To the displeasure of some in Congress, the working proposal would compensate U.S. citizens naturalized subsequently to the 1998 attacks less than those who were citizens at the time—working a de facto racial disparity.

Even if the 1998 claims can be resolved, a bigger hurdle looms in the prospect of blanket immunity-to-date for Sudan.  While Sudan did defend the embassy-bombing lawsuits on grounds of FSIA interpretation, it has not responded to the legal claims of, The Hill estimates, about 3,000 family members of September 11 victims who blame Sudan for bin Laden's five-year safe harbor there.  According to the New York Times story, those plaintiffs have the support of Senate leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to see that their claims are not extinguished.  It seems unlikely that a closely divided Congress would have any appetite to favor foreign tranquility over September 11 victims, no matter how much U.S. businesses are chomping at the bit to trade in Sudan.

Local heroes (with a smartphone) atop Jebel Barkal
(RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Last Week in Sudan

Here in the United States, if we hear about Sudan, it's likely to be in the context of civil war atrocities, the human rights abuses of the Bashir regime, or Middle East tensions.  Yet last week in Sudan, I saw little evidence of those worldly matters.  On the roads of Khartoum, in the markets, and in the countryside, I found only a gracious and warm people, a rich Nubian cultural tradition, and a stunning archaeological record of our shared human heritage.

Your interpid blogger at the Nuri Pyramids
(Steven Mueller CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Both of those views, the ugly and the beautiful, the grim and the genial, are Sudan.  We disregard the former at our hazard.  But to disregard the latter, we risk much more.

Sudan is the beating heart of the African continent.  Sudan will not forever be deterred by colonial legacy and the politics of aging superpowers.  However we manage to balance redress for past wrongs with a way forward, America will have to decide how to be a part of Sudan's future.  The only alternative will be to join the crumbling desert relics of Sudan's past. 

UPDATE, Dec. 13, 2020: See Conor Finnegan, Trump admin offered $700M to 9/11 victims to save Sudan deal, ABC News, Dec. 11, 2020.  UPDATE, Dec. 20, 2020: Sudan's Listing as Sponsor of Terrorism Ended by US, BBC, Dec. 14, 2020.

Friday, April 3, 2020

'Game changer,' $2.5m punitive affirmance elucidates 'gross negligence' in medmal

The Massachusetts Appeals Court in late February affirmed an award of $2.5m in punitive damages in a case of death from botched laparoscopic surgery for a hiatal hernia.  In affirming, the Court reiterated terms and circumstances that allow a jury to differentiate "gross negligence" from mere negligence in the medical context.

According to the court opinion, Laura Parsons died after laparoscopic surgery to repair her hiatal hernia resulted in surgical tacks penetrating her pericardium, the membrane surrounding the heart.  The jury laid blame squarely on defendants surgeon, nurse, and employer for tacks having been inserted in the diaphragm too close to heart tissue.  Parsons died of cardiac arrest two days after surgery, and an autopsy observed "puncture marks on the posterior aspect of the heart."

In addition to $2.6m in compensatory damages, the jury charged the surgeon with $2.5m in punitive damages for "gross negligence," the threshold for punitive damages in medical malpractice in Massachusetts.  The Appeals Court affirmed.  Mass. Lawyers Weekly called the decision a "game changer" in favor of punitive damages for medmal plaintiffs (Mar. 5, 2020, pay wall).

An issue on appeal was the jury instruction on "gross negligence."  More than negligence and less than recklessness, "gross negligence" is a familiar yet elusive norm in Anglo-American common law.  The Appeals Court in part faulted the surgeon's counsel for failing to state objection to the usual jury instruction on the standard, though the court seemed content with the instruction on its merits.  The court observed, "While drawing the line between ordinary negligence and gross negligence can be difficult, 'the distinction [between them] is well established and must be observed, lest all negligence be gradually absorbed into the classification of gross negligence [citations omitted]."

The court concluded, "The evidence as a whole permitted the jury to find that [Dr.] Ameri's use of the tacker in Parsons's surgery manifested many of the common indicia of gross negligence. See Rosario v. Vasconcellos ... ([Mass.] 1953), quoting Lynch ... [Mass. 1936] ("some of the more common indicia of gross negligence are set forth as 'deliberate inattention,' 'voluntary incurring of obvious risk,' 'impatience of reasonable restraint,' or 'persistence in a palpably negligent course of conduct over an appreciable period of time'").

The case is Parsons v. Ameri, No. 18-P-1373 (Mass. App. Ct. Feb. 26, 2020) (Justia).  Justice Massing wrote for a unanimous panel with Sacks and Hand, JJ.

Battery, IIED in play if medical staff ignore patient's 'stop,' court rules

Medical professionals may be liable for battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress for failing to heed a patient's withdrawal of consent, a Massachusetts Appeals Court reversal warned in February.

Brigham and Women's Hospital is a teaching hospital
of Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Photo by trepulu CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (2010).
According to the appellate court opinion, evidence in the case supported the plaintiffs' disputed claim that terminally ill cancer patient Donna Zaleskas begged staff at Brigham and Women's Hospital to stop X-rays of her leg because of her physical discomfort, but that X-ray technicians proceeded anyway.  On behalf of Zaleskas, who succumbed to cancer, survivors are suing the hospital for battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress, upon the theory that Zaleskas withdrew consent.  The Superior Court awarded summary judgment to the defense, and the Appeals Court reversed and remanded.

Thirty-seven-year-old decedent Zaleskas was a personal injury and product liability attorney in New York and alumna of Boston College Law School.

A finer line than one might expect separates theories of negligence and battery in many medical malpractice cases.  When a medical professional touches or otherwise physically treats a patient without, or beyond the scope of, the patient's consent, the action can simultaneously satisfy the test for intentional battery—defendant intentionally effecting physical contact that is unwanted by the complainant—and negligence—defendant's failure to comport with the standard of care of a reasonable professional under the circumstances.  Consent is an affirmative defense to intentional torts, like assumption of risk is a defense to negligence, but scope of consent often presents a thorny question of controverted fact.  Of course, patients with the benefit of hindsight are ill inclined to suppose that they consented to physical contact that caused harm, so intentional tort claims are often rationally articulable alongside accident claims in medmal lawsuits.

In the interest of doctrinal clarity, courts often, and in some jurisdictions, upon some facts, must, channel cases into a distinct rubric for "medical malpractice" that sits under or alongside the negligence umbrella, regardless of whether the case might be characterized as intent or accident.  That's a modern trend.  Massachusetts is more permissive in preserving conventional claims in intentional torts in medmal when the facts fit the bill.  The difference can be important in different dimensions.  A defendant's insurer might deny coverage, under policy terms, for intentional torts.  At the same time, intentional torts may give a plaintiff access to greater, even punitive, damage awards.

The Appeals Court ruled Zaleskas's claim fit for hearing in the intentional tort framework.  The court wrote plainly, "We now hold that if a patient unambiguously withdraws consent after medical treatment has begun, and if it is medically feasible to discontinue treatment, continued treatment following such a withdrawal may give rise to a medical battery claim."  In the instant case, "a reasonable jury could find that saying stop or words to that effect, in the particular factual context at issue, was sufficient to withdraw consent."

The court ruled furthermore, to the plaintiffs' advantage, "that consent to have one's body touched or positioned for an X-ray is not a matter beyond the common knowledge or experience of a layperson and does not require expert medical testimony."

The case is Zaleskas v. Brigham & Women's Hosp., No. 18-P-1076 (Mass. App. Ct. Feb. 11, 2020) (Justia). Justice Henry wrote for a unanimous panel with Rubin and Wendlandt, JJ.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Teachable torts, Patriots edition: Civil complaint against Antonio Brown

Antonio Brown in 2014 (by Brook Ward CC BY-NC 2.0)
New England news is afire today over the civil lawsuit filed against NFL Patriots football acquisition Antonio Brown.  It happens that many 1L law students are presently immersed in their first exposures to intentional torts and federal jurisdiction.  So here from Mnwilla at Scribd is the complaint and some comments for thought.




Notes and Questions

1. The case is filed in federal court in Florida, but the claims are all in state tort law. What is the basis for federal jurisdiction?  Why do you think the complaint was filed on Brown's first scheduled day of practice with the Patriots?

2. The fact statement is lengthy, paragraphs 14 to 74. But federal practice requires only "notice pleading."  Plaintiff's counsel gives up a lot of information about the plaintiff's theory of the case by putting more content than necessary into pleadings.  So why so much ink on factual allegations?

3. There are five straightforward counts, or causes: two in battery, one in false imprisonment, one in IIED, and one in invasion of privacy.
  • Notice how false imprisonment appears incidentally to other claims.  Unlike MBE hypotheticals, few cases in real life support false imprisonment by itself. 
  • One of the battery counts is called "sexual battery (rape)."  That's not really a distinct kind of battery in multistate common law, and it doesn't here appear to be covered by any specific statute, apart from common law.  Nevertheless, a plaintiff may claim separate counts of tort upon discrete factual bases.  What are the advantages of doing so?
  • What challenges does the plaintiff face in proving IIED?  Do the factual allegations get her there?  Is there vulnerability on this count or any other to a 12(b)(6) motion?

4. The plaintiff seeks punitive damages, and the bases for that claim are stated within the counts. Some jurisdictions require that sufficient allegations to support a claim for punitive damages be stated in a separate count, even though "punitive damages" is a damages claim, not a tort.  Can you discern the rule for punitive damages in the state jurisdiction, based on the allegations?

Friday, February 1, 2019

Federal court holds Syria liable to U.S. family for $300m in killing of journalist Marie Colvin

Syria owes more than $300m in wrongful death damages to the family of American journalist Marie Colvin, who was killed while working for the U.K. Sunday Times covering the siege of Homs in the Syrian civil war in 2012, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled January 30, per U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson (e.g., N.Y. Times).

The Assad regime did not answer the lawsuit, and the court entered judgment by default.  The claim arose under the state-sponsored terrorism exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA), 28 U.S.C. § 1605A.  The exception was amended into the FSIA in 2008 to strengthen an earlier 1996 exception after claims against Iran faltered in enforcement.  Section 1605A spells out the existence of a private cause of action in federal law, irrespective of the vagaries of state tort law.  The court found that the Colvin family presented sufficient evidence to prove that Marie Colvin's death was an "extrajudicial killing," beyond the shield of FSIA immunity.  The law also excepts torture, aircraft sabotage, and hostage taking from FSIA immunity.

The case is furthermore noteworthy because the court awarded damages to Colvin's sister upon a liability theory of intentional infliction of emotional distress.  Typically in state law, actions alleging emotional distress inflicted on a "bystander" by the killing of a loved one fail for the plaintiff's inability to prove intent as to the suffering of the bystander.  However, in the Colvin case, the court reasoned that the very purpose of a terrorist attack is to inflict emotional suffering on third parties.

The court awarded the family $11,836 in funerary expenses and $300m in punitive damages, and awarded Colvin's sister $2.5m in damages for emotional suffering ("solatium").  Photojournalist Paul Conroy, who worked with Colvin and survived the Homs attack, told the BBC that the ruling is not about money, which the family likely will never see, but is important to de-legitimize the Assad regime in the community of nations.

Colvin's story is the subject of Under the Wire, a 2018 documentary film by Chris Martin, available on iTunes (trailer below), and A Private War, a 2018 dramatic film by Matthew Heineman (IMDb), starring Rosamund Pike, due for DVD/Blu-ray release on Amazon in February.  The screenplay derived from Marie Brenner's coverage of Colvin's life and death for Vanity Fair.



The case is Colvin v. Syrian Arab Republic, No.