August 09, 2019 Top Story

Supreme Court Rejects Service on Foreign State Via Embassy

Delicate diplomatic context requires strict adherence to statutory requirements

By Geoff A. Gannaway

The U.S. Supreme Court has narrowly construed requirements for proper service of a Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) lawsuit, holding that the statute requires a mailing sent directly to a foreign minister’s office in a foreign state.

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In Republic of Sudan v. Harrison, the Court reversed a $314 million default judgment obtained by the victims of the bombing of the U.S.S Cole because the plaintiffs had served Sudan through its embassy in the United States. The Court explained that the delicate diplomatic relations implicated by FSIA suits justify prioritizing strict construction over equitable considerations.

Plaintiffs Serve Sudanese Embassy and Try to Collect on Default Judgment

As a general rule, foreign states enjoy immunity from suit in U.S. courts under FSIA unless a statutory exception applies. When an exception applies, a plaintiff may establish personal jurisdiction over a defendant foreign state by serving the complaint and summons pursuant to FSIA, 28 U.S.C. §1608. Section 1608(a)(3) permits service “by any form of mail requiring a signed receipt, to be addressed and dispatched by the clerk of the court to the head of the ministry of foreign affairs of the foreign state concerned.”

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