Stephen Flatow spent seven years trying to collect damages from the Iranian government he blamed for the death of his daughter.
President Bush signed a bill on Tuesday that makes it easier for Americans to sue foreign governments that sponsor terrorism, such as the Islamic Jihad attack in which Flatow’s daughter was murdered. Flatow doesn’t expect the law to yield new results for his case, but he is hopeful that others who have lost loved ones to terrorism will find it easier to seek retribution.
The West Orange man made history in 1996 when he filed a lawsuit against the Iranian government for its sponsorship of the Palestinian terror group Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the 1995 bus bombing in Gaza that killed ‘0-year-old Alisa, a graduate of the Frisch School in Paramus. He won a $’47.6 million verdict but was unable to collect most of the money.
The families of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker, top, and Alisa Flatow, killed in Palestinian attacks in the 1990s, have sought compensation from Iran.
Flatow and his wife, Rosalyn, won a default judgment against Iran because the country did not contest the lawsuit. Congress passed a law in ‘000 authorizing the government to use frozen assets of Iran and Cuba to pay compensatory damages to people holding judgments against them. In the end, the Flatows split a $’00 million settlement with three other families, including Arline Duker of Teaneck, whose ”-year-old daughter, Sara, was killed in a 1996 bus bombing in Jerusalem with her fianc?, Matthew Eisenfeld, a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary from Connecticut.
Flatow was the inspiration for the Flatow amendment in 1996, which loosened U.S. law to allow citizens to sue foreign governments in cases of terrorism and opened the gates to his lawsuit.
The new law amends the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act by reinforcing the rights of victims of state-sponsored terror to sue governments that support and promote terrorism. Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) wrote the bill, which had originally been part of the defense authorization bill the president vetoed in December.
The president argued that the bill would hinder reconstruction in Iraq by allowing lawsuits to hold the current Iraqi government responsible for terrorism committed under Saddam Hussein’s government. In response, Lautenberg negotiated a provision giving the administration authority to waive the law in cases related to Iraq.
"It’s a law that’s long overdue," Flatow told The Jewish Standard Tuesday. "The bill will hopefully give other terror victims the right to reach the assets of countries sponsoring terrorism."
Steven Perles, the lawyer who has represented Flatow, said that the number of people seeking damages from state sponsors of terrorism has increased as a result of Flatow’s action and will likely continue to rise thanks to this new bill. Flatow was Perles’ first case of this nature. He now represents more than 300 families seeking compensatory damages.
"Steve Flatow had the courage to go do this when other people didn’t," Perles said. "Back in ’96 when he started, this course of action was basically unheard of."
Perles also represented Arline Duker and the Eisenfeld family.
"Anything our government can do to make it possible for victims of terror to punish the perpetrators is a good thing," said Duker in a telephone interview Wednesday night. "It’s one way we hope to put them out of business, especially if many people are able to do this."
The new law reaffirms the rights of plaintiffs to sue state sponsors of terrorism; allows for the seizure of hidden commercial assets belonging to terrorist states so that victims can be compensated; limits the number of appeals that a terrorist state can pursue in U.S. courts; and provides the same benefits to foreign nationals working for the U.S. government if they are injured in terrorist attacks.
Under the current law, it was more difficult for residents in states such as Pennsylvania to seek legal retribution because their state laws do not have mechanisms to deal with these types of cases. The new statute creates uniform federal damage standards.
"It helps simplify enforcement," Perles said.
While states now have stricter guidelines on how to enforce the law, litigators must closely follow the money trail in each case to identify a defendant.
Litigation is basically useless against the terrorists themselves who scorn international laws, said Perles, but lawyers can follow the money trail to find the states providing funding that allows these groups to operate. Perles has brought action against Iran for its support of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as the Palestinian Authority for its support of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
"We follow the money," Perles said. "We look at who’s amenable to litigation. Every case is different."
According to a spokesman for Lautenberg, the law amends the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which protects foreign governments from lawsuits. The law removes that protection only from countries that the State Department lists as sponsors of terrorism and courts can collect only assets held in the United States. The assets are seized and then auctioned off.
The Flatow case was the inspiration behind Lautenberg’s involvement, the spokesman said.
"This new law achieves my goal of providing justice for American victims of terrorism at the hands of terrorist states like Iran and Libya," Lautenberg said in a statement. "I will not rest until all American victims of terrorism get the justice they deserve."
A U.S. District Court ruled in September that Iran owed $’.657 billion in damages to the families of the ’41 servicemen killed in the 1983 bombing of the Beirut Marine barracks. Lautenberg’s law makes it easer for the courts to seize frozen Iranian assets in the United States. It also allows access to the courts for the victims of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.
Flatow and Duker will unlikely receive any new awards from the law, Perles said. Rather, it will make it easier for others to collect.
For Flatow, no amount of money can bring back his daughter. But his long ordeal to strike back at Iran wasn’t about making himself feel better.
"There’s always the argument that these types of lawsuits don’t eliminate terrorism. They don’t deter terror sponsors from the next attack," Flatow said. "I like to think we do have an impact and as more people bite the apple, Iran and other countries out there will think twice in the future."