Four Liberians Lutheran Church Massacre Victims Win Historic Damages Award In U.S.
Debevoise Plimpton LLP, along with co-counsel Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), has secured a historic damages award for four survivors of the Lutheran Church Massacre, one of the deadliest attacks on civilians during Liberia’s Civil Wars. On August 16, 2022 a Pennsylvania court issued an order awarding damages totaling $84 million dollars to victims following a September 2021 decision holding Col. Moses Thomas responsible for the war crimes, crimes against humanity, extrajudicial killing, attempted extrajudicial killing, and torture that took place during the Massacre.
In 2018, Debevoise and CJA, with support from the Global Justice and Research Project, brought civil claims against Thomas under the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victim Protection Act. The team submitted nearly 2,000 pages of evidence arguing that Thomas commanded an elite special forces unit in the massacre of 600 civilians in a Red Cross shelter at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia, Liberia during the country’s First Civil War in July 1990. On September 15, 2021, in a detailed 51-page decision, the court found Col. Moses Thomas responsible for the massacre – the first time any member of the Armed Forces of Liberia had ever been held accountable for abuses committed during Liberia’s Civil Wars.
On August 16, 2022 Magistrate Judge Lynne Sitarski ordered Thomas to pay each survivor $6 million in compensatory damages and $15 million in punitive damages, for a total of $84 million. Magistrate Judge Sitarski’s order contains powerful language that highlights the cruelty of Thomas’s conduct, including his command of the attack despite his training in the law of armed conflict, the ongoing trauma and long-term impact of the Massacre on the plaintiffs, and the lack of punishment and accountability for the attack. The order also describes the deterrent effect of a substantial damages award, noting that Thomas returned to Liberia in 2019—less than two years after the case was brought. Magistrate Judge Sitarski declared the acts committed against the plaintiffs as “unspeakably brutal” and Thomas’s role overseeing these acts as “beyond egregious.”
“This judgment by a U.S. court is an important milestone in our clients’ quest for accountability, but it is important to remember that it is not enough. Liberia has an obligation under international law to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the Lutheran Church Massacre,” said partner Catherine Amirfar. “Despite recommendations from Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission over a decade ago calling for an investigation, Liberia has taken no steps to hold a single perpetrator of the Massacre accountable.”
The Debevoise team is led by Ms. Amirfar and includes counsel Ashika Singh and associates Tatiana August-Schmidt, Taylor Booth, Moeun Cha, Gabrielle McKenzie, Duncan Pickard, Kate Seifert and Harold Williford, as well as former counsel Elizabeth Nielsen and associate Alyssa Yamamoto.