Debevoise and the Center for Justice and Accountability Defeat Motion to Dismiss Landmark Liberian Human Rights Case

19 December 2018

Debevoise & Plimpton, along with the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) and Blank Rome LLP, has defeated a motion to dismiss a critical Liberian human rights case, bringing the survivors of the infamous “Lutheran Church Massacre” one step closer to justice. In a decision that brings hope to the victims of the 14-year Liberian civil conflict and marks a potentially significant development of extraterritorial jurisdiction, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that claims of extrajudicial killing, torture, crimes against humanity and war crimes can proceed against Philadelphia resident Moses Thomas, pursuant to the Torture Victim Protection Act and the Alien Tort Statute.

Debevoise originally filed suit against Moses Thomas in February 2018, with CJA and Blank Rome LLP serving as co-counsel and the Global Justice and Research Project providing local investigative support. The complaint alleges that Thomas served as a commander of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) and, on July 29, 1990, ordered his unit to attack St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, a designated Red Cross humanitarian shelter, where 2,000 unarmed civilians sought refuge from the escalating violence of the Liberian Civil War. The complaint further alleges that approximately 600 civilians were indiscriminately killed over the course of the attack. The four Liberian plaintiffs in the present lawsuit survived the massacre by hiding under piles of dead bodies until the AFL left. To this day, nobody has been held accountable for the massacre.

The denial of Thomas’ Motion to Dismiss marks a critical moment in the legal development of extraterritorial claims brought under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), especially in the aftermath of Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, in which the Supreme Court held there to be a general presumption against extraterritoriality, such that only ATS claims that “touch and concern” U.S. territory can be heard. The E.D. Pa. found that the present claims sufficiently “touch and concern” the United States due to, inter alia, the defendant’s U.S. residence and allegedly fraudulent participation in a U.S. visa and immigration program. The E.D. Pa. also found sufficient evidence of fears of reprisal and futility of seeking local remedies and accordingly permitted the application of equitable tolling.

The Debevoise team is led by partners Matthew E. Fishbein and Catherine Amirfar and includes associates Megan Corrarino, Natascha Born, Elizabeth Nielsen, Alyssa T. Yamamoto and Ming Ming Yang.

Debevoise & Plimpton is a premier law firm with market-leading practices, a global perspective and strong New York roots. We deliver effective solutions to our clients’ most important legal challenges, applying clear commercial judgment and a distinctively collaborative approach.