Category: Archive

Blanket immunity?

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

And when the dust settled it was less than a shock that the couple’s effort to wrest financial damages from Northrop Grumman Information Technology Inc. rested, Sisyphus-like, at the bottom of the legal mountain.
Murray and Gould, who were wrongly imprisoned as “terrorists” in Nevada now have two strikes against them.
They lost the first round of their $101 million suit in district court but took the fight to New York’s Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
That court recently dismissed the couple’s appeal while at the same time granting Northrop a cloak of official immunity.
Murray and Gould, both Walsh visa holders, were working in Las Vegas when they were arrested and jailed on suspicion of having terrorist links in February 2002.
The duo’s suit against Northrop — which administered the Walsh program on behalf of the U.S. State Department — was prompted by the ultimately false accusations leveled at them by their employer, Steve Smith, owner at the time of a company named Las Vegas Airports.
Smith was later convicted of a felony in a separate case concerning the abduction of a prostitute.
Murray and Gould were released without charge after a week in jail, but then faced deportation proceedings.
However, an immigration court granted each a “U” Visa, which is provided to victims or witnesses in criminal investigations.
As a result, the couple were able to remain on U.S. soil while their case against Northrop worked itself up to a three-member Second Circuit appeal panel headed by Chief Judge John Walker, a cousin of President Bush.
In the end, however, Murray and Gould were defeated less by the weight of legal argument mounted by the defendant than they were by the Goliath-like precedent of granting immunity to corporations carrying out policy on behalf of the government.
Murray and Gould’s claims, according to the court ruling, were largely based on Northrop’s transmittal to the State Department and the then Immigration and Naturalization Service of Smith’s allegations that the couple posed a possible terrorist threat.
Northrop Grumman, the court opined “asserts as a defense that this transmittal is protected by official immunity. We agree.”
And the court added: “We think that when a private contractor, hired to perform a quintessential governmental function, in the course of its official duties conveys information with possible national security implications to the agency charged with its oversight, that contract is absolutely immune from state tort liability for claims resulting from that information sharing.
“As the administrator of a program under the United States’ immigration laws, NGIT [Northrop] therefore is entitled to official immunity for tort actions arising out of its transmittal of smith’s allegations regarding appellants to the DOS [Department of State] and INS.”
The court stated that it did recognize that absolute immunity came at a price.
It sometimes allowed an injured party with an otherwise meritorious claim to be denied compensation simply because he had the misfortune to be injured by an individual entitled to immunity.
But this sympathetic line was not enough to win the case for the Belfast couple.
“The balance here tips strongly in favor of immunity,” the court stated.
However, the judges did not express a view on any action that Murray and Gould might pursue against Smith, or the authorities who wrongly imprisoned them in Nevada.
“Of course, nothing we decide here necessarily forecloses actions against either Smith, the source of the allegations, or against the government agencies who detained and incarcerated Appellants based on those allegations. We express no opinion, however, as to whether any such action might succeed.”
Attorney for Murray and Gould, Eamonn Dornan said he was very disappointed by a ruling which, he said, permitted the defendant to be as negligent as it wishes without fear of litigation.
“The grant of official immunity to a private contractor is an extraordinary event, and as far as I am aware, this court has only granted official immunity on one other occasion to a not-for-profit organization, in circumstances very different to these,” Dornan told the Echo.
“This appears to be the first time in this circuit that a self-insured private contractor has been awarded official immunity. The ruling could have a far reaching and chilling effect on any other potential plaintiff who has the misfortune to be injured by a government contractor.”
Dornan said he had filed a petition for rehearing with the Second Circuit Court on the grounds that the grant of official immunity was such an extraordinary event.
“Because the U.S. Supreme Court has cautioned against granting this status liberally, this ruling should be revisited,” Dornan said.

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