High court rejects ex-hostages' lawsuit against Iran

January 10, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Two Americans who were held hostage during the 1980s failed yesterday in a plea to the Supreme Court to revive their lawsuit against Iran's government.

Joseph J. Cicippio, who was a captive for 1,907 days, and David Jacobsen, who was held for 523 days, claimed in their lawsuit seeking $600 million that the Iranian government itself was responsible for their capture and should pay them damages.

The Iranian government disclaimed any responsibility, telling the justices through a U.S. lawyer that the two hostages had made a "baseless allegation" of official Iranian involvement in their capture.

A lower federal court threw out their lawsuit last summer, and the Supreme Court rejected their appeal yesterday in a brief order. As is its custom when it denies a review, the court gave no explanation.

Under a U.S. law enacted in 1976, foreign governments generally are immune to lawsuits in American courts. Exceptions exist, however, for lawsuits that claim that wrongs were done by a foreign government engaging in commercial actions.

To try to fit their claims within that law, Mr. Cicippio and Mr. Jacobsen contended that Iran had arranged for their capture as a form of "commercial terrorism," in a campaign to get the U.S. government to unfreeze Iranian assets or to obtain arms secretly from the United States.

They contended that their captors, the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon, had acted as a hired agent of Iran's government. The lower court that rejected their claims said that hostage-taking by governments could not be considered normal commercial activity "unless one distorts the notion of a marketplace to include a hostage bazaar."

Ten years ago, the Supreme Court turned down attempts by an earlier group of hostages to sue Iran in U.S. courts. Those hostages had been taken when militants seized the U.S. Embassy and held the hostages for 14 months.

The Supreme Court's refusal yesterday to revive the latest hostages' lawsuit was one of a handful of significant actions.

The court turned down, for the second time in five years, an attempt to test the constitutionality of laws in force across the nation that make it a crime to interfere with hunters in the field.

At issue in the new case was a Montana law that outlaws efforts to "disturb an individual engaged in the lawful taking of a wild animal with intent to" stop that taking. The law was challenged, on free-speech grounds, by John Lilburn, a Montana anti-hunting activist who twice stood in front of a hunter's aimed rifle to stop the killing of buffalo in the Gallatin National Forest four years ago.

Congress last year joined the 49 states -- including Maryland -- that have laws against so-called "hunter harassment." State courts have reached conflicting rulings on the constitutionality of such laws, but the justices refused without comment to step in to settle the dispute.

The Fund for Animals Inc., based in Silver Spring, issued a news release to protest the court's refusal to get involved. Heidi Prescott, the group's national director, said there have been 45 arrests under Maryland's law, with two convictions after trials and two guilty pleas. She was one of those convicted, and spent two weeks in jail, she noted.

On the court's order, she said: "It is quite absurd that hunters can quack on their duck calls and fire noisy gun shots all day long, but expect to be immune from hearing any critical thought."

In another order, the court refused to disturb a $7.3 million verdict against Dow Corning Corp. in favor of a Sebastopol, Calif., woman who had had silicone implanted in her breasts and who suffered a tissue disease as a result of the rupture of the gel implants.

Dow Corning argued in an appeal that the scientific testimony used against it at the trial did not satisfy federal court rules for expert evidence.

It also challenged as excessive the $6.5 million punitive-damages portion of the verdict.

The court turned down Dow's appeal in an unexplained order.

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