Supreme Court refuses to reopen suit for damages in '87 Persian Gulf incident

April 20, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Attempts to collect potentially millions of dollars in damages for the deaths or injuries of U.S. seamen when a Navy frigate was hit by Iraqi missiles six years ago faltered in the Supreme Court yesterday, but lawyers vowed to try other legal moves.

Without comment, the court turned aside an appeal to reopen a lawsuit that ended in lower courts after the Navy protested that military secrets might come out if the case went to trial.

The frigate USS Stark, one of the Navy's most advanced combat vessels, had heavy crew losses when an Iraqi jet fighter fired two Exocet missiles while the Stark was patrolling in the Persian Gulf on May 17, 1987.

Thirty-seven sailors died and 62 were wounded in an incident that the Navy later said could have been averted if it had not been for failures of the captain and the ship's "watch team." The Navy said the Stark's weapons system was capable of defending the vessel if used properly.

Iraq, pressed by U.S. diplomats, apologized for the incident and paid $27,350,374 in compensation to the sailors who were injured and to the

survivors of the dead crew members.

But the sailors or their families sued 28 companies that had built or worked on the Stark's weapons systems. A major part of the lawsuit was aimed at General Dynamics Corp., maker of the Stark's Phalanx anti-missile system. General Dynamics, the lawsuit claimed, knew that the defense system was flawed.

But before the lawsuit moved very far in court, the Navy during the Bush administration asked that the case be thrown out, saying that the case could not go ahead without serious risk to secrets about the Stark's weapons system and about the Navy's combat operations.

Although the sailors and the families contended that they had plenty of evidence to win their case without having secrets disclosed, lower courts disagreed.

The appeal asked the Supreme Court to define further the limits on the government's authority to use claims of "state secrets" to disrupt legal cases.

David W. Holman, a Houston lawyer handling the legal claims, said that he and other attorneys would now try to persuade the Clinton administration to relax the objection to the lawsuit, perhaps allowing it to go forward.

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