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Friday, July 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Court Sides With Iran, for Now, in Fight for Damages

CHICAGO (CN) - American citizens who were victims of a 1997 suicide bombing may not be able to satisfy a judgment against Iran by laying claim to Persian antiques on loan with Chicago museums, the 7th Circuit ruled.

The ruling reversed an Illinois federal judge's order denying Iran's bid for sovereign immunity from damages and ordering the country to list all of its U.S. assets.

Plaintiffs are made up of five groups injured or related to those injured in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem, carried out by Hamas with Iran's material support and training. They won a $71 million default judgment against Iran in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

To satisfy the judgment, plaintiffs sought to attach three collections of Persian artifacts located in Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History and the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.

The museums intervened, arguing that the artifacts were prevented by Iran's sovereign immunity and that their seizure would interfere with scholarly pursuits, a dangerous precedent.

When the Northern District of Illinois ruled that Iran had to affirmatively assert sovereign immunity, the nation appeared at trial and did just that. Plaintiffs immediately served requests for discovery regarding "all Iranian-owned assets located anywhere in the United States," and U.S. District Judge Blanche Manning ordered discovery over Iran's protest of immunity.

The 7th Circuit reversed, calling both of the court's orders "seriously flawed."

The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act "codified the longstanding common-law principle that a foreign state's property in the United States is immune from attachment," Judge Diane Sykes wrote for the court's three-judge panel.

It was passed to protect foreign sovereigns from the burdens of litigation, including the cost and aggravation of discovery.

Granting plaintiffs a "blank check" for discovery violated this principle, Sykes wrote.

The 7th Circuit's ruling brings it in line with the 2nd, 5th and 9th Circuits - all of which repeated an identical message to the District Courts: "discovery should be ordered circumspectly and only to verify allegations of specific facts crucial to an immunity determination."

On remand, Manning must determine whether the plaintiffs have satisfied exception requirements to the inherent immunity of the three identified collections.

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