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September 11 families in new quest to sue Saudi Arabia


The horrific scene after the hijacked planes hit the World Trade Centre towers in New York (AP)

The horrific scene after the hijacked planes hit the World Trade Centre towers in New York (AP)

The horrific scene after the hijacked planes hit the World Trade Centre towers in New York (AP)

Families of the September 11 terror attack victims and others harmed in the 2001 outrage have been given new hope of holding Saudi Arabia responsible.

For years, families and insurance companies have tried unsuccessfully through the courts to sue Saudi Arabia or businesses and organisations there for the terrorist attacks.

Now the US Congress has cleared the way for a renewed effort.

In the next year, the Manhattan federal courts will make rulings signalling to thousands of family members of those killed and injured first responders whether passage of the 2016 Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act was largely a symbolic exercise or a catalyst to getting them to trial.

Timothy Litzenburg, a lawyer in Richmond, Virginia, said his firm raced to court hours after Congress overrode former president Barack Obama's veto in late September, hoping to get an early start on winning damages for litigants.

"We thought maybe we could do the first trial," he said.

But now that the lawsuits have been consolidated before a New York federal court, Mr Litzenburg predicts it could be a decade before there is a resolution for more than a dozen lawsuits filed against Saudi Arabia.

US Magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn tried to put the litigation on a faster track on Thursday, telling lawyers at a Manhattan conference that she believes some of the lawsuits can be combined because they make identical or similar claims.

She noted the latest lawsuit had been filed just hours earlier.

James Kreindler, a plaintiffs' lawyer in one new lawsuit, told her he expected the lawsuits may be combined into two legal actions, perhaps within a month.

Michael Kellogg, a lawyer for Saudi Arabia, said at Thursday's hearing that lawyers for plaintiffs were unfairly using mostly the same plaintiffs in 9/11 cases brought 14 years ago to make new claims against Saudi Arabia.

"They've added a number of different allegations, which will complicate the process," he said.

Saudi Arabia, an important US ally in the Middle East, had lobbied against the new law.

US president Donald Trump had called Mr Obama's veto "shameful". Mr Obama said he rejected it because it could open up the US government to lawsuits around the world claiming that the United States has supported terrorism.

Sovereign immunity usually protects governments from lawsuits, but the bill creates an exception that lets litigants hold foreign governments responsible if they support a terrorist attack that kills US citizens on American soil.

Previous efforts to hold Saudi Arabia, its officials, and banks and charitable organisations responsible for the attacks have failed in the courts. Not all of the cases have been thrown out solely for sovereign immunity reasons.

In 2008, the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that four Saudi princes could not be held liable in the September 11 attacks even if they were aware that charitable donations to Muslim groups would be funnelled to al Qaida.

The court said the plaintiffs would need to prove the princes engaged in intentional actions aimed at US residents.

A lower court judge had earlier cited the September 11 commission, saying it found no evidence Saudi Arabia - the birthplace of Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers - funded or supported the terrorists.

Saudi lawyers have not responded to requests to comment on the new lawsuits.

In the past, they have said in court papers that families are relying on the submission of "thousands of pages of inadmissible and irrelevant materials".


PA Media