Friday, June 5, 2009

Attorney Fees: Pan Am Flight 103

In a strongly worded opinion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit today reversed a district court order that an attorney for six plaintiffs share 3% of his contingency fees with a committee for other plaintiffs in the litigation which grew out of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The bombing caused the death of 259 persons on board and 11 persons on the ground.  Rein v. The Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya

The appeals court opinion refers to "significant legal errors," "error falling outside the range of the court's permissible discretion,"  conclusions which "could not logically be understood" to flow from the evidence, "invalid" reasons, district court actions which "exceeded the scope of its discretion," and "numerous and serious errors in...reasoning." 

At the time of the bombing the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) barred suits against sovereign nations. The opinion notes that the lawyer opposing the 3% share was differently situated from other plaintiffs' counsel: he had successfully lobbied Congress to amend FSIA to provide for a terrorism exception to the immunity of a sovereign foreign state--a change in the law which allowed all the plaintiffs to successfully sue the Libyan government. 

While it is rare to see a federal appellate court conclude that a district judge abused his discretion, it is even rarer to see an appellate court rebuke a district judge in the language employed here. 

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