Suing Uncle Sam: American Lawyers File Claims for Victims of the Nairobi Embassy Bombing

By Mabry, Marcus | Newsweek International, April 12, 1999 | Go to article overview

Suing Uncle Sam: American Lawyers File Claims for Victims of the Nairobi Embassy Bombing


Mabry, Marcus, Newsweek International


Joyce Kaendi was returning to her desk when a car bomb leveled her office building near the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. The 51-year-old chief cashier lost the use of one eye in the terrorist bombing last August that killed more than 200 and injured 5,500. Now Kaendi wants someone to pay for her suffering. So she is asking for compensation from none other than the U.S. government, which she holds accountable for failing to safeguard its embassy. "Our lives will never be the same," she says. "It was through the Americans' negligence that we were hit... They are a wealthy nation. They are a superpower. They should pay."

Kaendi has joined a steady stream of blind, maimed and disfigured bombing victims seeking restitution from Washington. With big money potentially at stake, American lawyers are fighting fiercely for their business. None is more prominent--or more controversial--than John Burris, an African-American civil-rights lawyer from California. (Because foreign attorneys are not permitted to practice in Kenya, they work in conjunction with local lawyers; the Kenyans manage the clients, and the Americans file the claims.) Burris and his partners have already filed more than 90 claims with the U.S. Departments of State, Justice and Defense, seeking individual damages ranging from $112,000 to $1.2 million. So far, they have 2,500 clients--and more are signing up every day. Burris says if their claims are rejected, he'll take Uncle Sam to court. "Left to its own devices, the government will try to get away with [paying] as little as possible," he says. "If these were Americans or Europeans, they would not be so easily dismissed."

Does Burris have a case? He is planning to use the government's own Accountability Review Board report, submitted in January, to prove that Washington was negligent. It found that despite persistent warnings from Ambassador Prudence Bushnell the Nairobi embassy was vulnerable to terrorism and the State Department refused to upgrade security or relocate the embassy. Furthermore, says Burris co-counsel Gerald Sterns, the embassy violated its own security rules by failing to train guards to deal with car bombs and by refusing to move the perimeter barricade farther from the building. "People ask, 'How can you sue anybody because of terrorism?' " says Sterns. "From a legal point of view, terrorism is no different from a faulty part. If you can anticipate it, you have to guard against it."

Washington denies responsibility. "We didn't blow ourselves up," says an American official in Nairobi. U.S. officials say that compensating the victims of a terrorist attack would set a dangerous legal precedent. "Federal agencies could be bombarded with all sorts of claims, and the federal courts could be shut down," says a government lawyer in Washington. In any case, as the U.S. Agency for International Development points out, Washington has already paid $5.4 million for reconstructive surgery, physical therapy and psychological counseling for the Kenyan bomb victims. The U.S. government recently paid to fly Rosemary Bichage home from Germany after she had surgery for extensive injuries and massive burns. USAID is now considering flying her to America to rebuild her jaw. Officials insist such gestures constitute not compensation but humanitarian aid, "like for a hurricane or drought," says one. Burris calls it "a drop in the bucket."

Burris's record is not flawless. In 1996, the California bar suspended him for 30 days for sending out mass mailings to disaster victims. …

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