(CN) – A federal judge refused to stay a lawsuit in which three Cubans claim a shipyard on the island of Curacao virtually enslaved them to pay off Cuba’s debt to the company.
In their 2006 lawsuit, the Cuban workers said they were kidnapped and trafficked to Curacao, where the Cuban government forced them and many others to work for Curacao Drydock in slave-like conditions on ships and oil platforms, for 112 hours a week. The men claimed they were never paid and worked for 15 years to satisfy a debt Cuba owed Curacao Drydock. They eventually escaped and made it to the United States.
After the workers sued the shipyard under the Alien Tort Statute and the RICO Act, Curacao Drydock unsuccessfully tried to move the case to Curacao. The company then abandoned its defense of the lawsuit and lost by default. The district court in Miami ordered Curacao Drydock to pay the plaintiffs $80 million.
In 2010, the plaintiffs sought to add the island of Curacao and the Netherlands Antilles, which owned Curacao Drydock, as judgment debtors.
The Netherlands Antilles was an autonomous Caribbean country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, consisting of two groups of islands, one of which included Aruba and Curacao. Aruba seceded in 1986, and the rest of the Netherlands Antilles was dissolved in October 2010. That year, Curacao became a separate country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which inherited the Netherlands Antilles’ rights and obligations.
The court refused to add Curacao and the Kingdom of the Netherlands as judgment defendants, but it granted limited jurisdictional discovery to determine if the two countries qualified for immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA).
The Cubans had argued that Curacao and the Kingdom of the Netherlands had used assets in the United States to fund and operate Curacao Drydock’s commercial activities, which were related to plaintiffs’ claims, and therefore were not entitled to sovereign immunity.
Curacao and the Kingdom of the Netherlands asked the court to reverse its order granting jurisdictional discovery, but the court denied their motion and refused to stay the lawsuit pending appeal.
The countries renewed their request last month, but the plaintiffs opposed the stay, arguing that the appeal was frivolous.
Senior U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King agreed that the appeal was premature, because the court had yet to rule on the issue of sovereign immunity.
The judge noted that the court had limited discovery to evidence supporting an exception to the FSIA, as opposed to “general asset discovery,” and thus had not infringed on the governments’ presumed immunity.
The court has not decided whether it has jurisdiction over Curacao and the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the ruling states. King admonished the governments for failing to respond in a timely manner to the Cubans’ motion for limited jurisdictional discovery, and noted that the court of appeals “looks disfavorably on ‘defendants who abuse the pretrial process through such stalling.'”