Victims of the 1998 bombings by al Qaeda of the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania are entitled to billions of dollars in punitive damages from Sudan, the Supreme Court ruled Monday. But by allowing for punitive damages, the court gave the victims leverage to get a larger settlement. They were the first major attacks on USA targets by al-Qaida.
"The Constitution discourages retroactive lawmaking in so many ways", wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch in the court's opinion, but "because foreign sovereign immunity is a gesture of grace and comity ... it is also something that may be withdrawn retroactively without the same risk to due process and equal protection principles that other forms of backward-looking legislation can pose".
Siding with hundreds of people hurt and relatives of people killed in the bombings, the justices ruled 8-0 to throw out a lower court's 2017 decision that had freed Sudan from punitive damages awarded in the litigation in addition to about $6 billion in compensatory damages.
In 2011, a Federal District Court awarded the plaintiffs - families of victims in the attacks that killed more than 220 people - $10.2 bn, including $4.3 in punitive damages.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh didn't participate in the case. The lawsuits involve 567 people, mostly non-US citizens who were employees of the United States government and their relatives.
The case has particular relevance now because Sudan's transitional government is seeking to be removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism and settling with the bombing victims is seen as critical to doing so.
The ruling comes at a time when the Sudanese government are pushing to lift U.S. sanctions on the African country and remove it from the State Department's list of State Sponsors of Terrotism.
The new government in Sudan in power following the 2019 overthrow of long-serving President Omar al-Bashir is keen to fix relations with the U.S., which should help end its economic isolation.
But the country's rulers are seeking to negotiate a settlement with victims of the bombing that would be acceptable to the USA government.
In a statement, victims called the ruling a "huge win".
"It's hard to imagine an act more deserving of punitive damages", said Matthew D. McGill, who argued the case in February.
The ruling reinstates about $826 million out of a total $4.3 billion in punitive damages, said Christopher Curran, a lawyer representing Sudan.
The Supreme Court held that "Congress was as clear as it could have been when it expressly authorized punitive damages under § 1605A (c) and explicitly made that new cause of action available to remedy certain past acts of terrorism".
The case is Opati v. Sudan, 17-1268.