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Appeals panel upholds forum ruling in wrongful death suit over terrorist bombing of Jordan hotel

By Jonathan Bilyk | Oct 7, 2013

An appellate court has upheld a Cook County ruling, determining that Illinois is not the correct jurisdiction to try a wrongful death lawsuit brought against Hyatt Hotels by the family of a Syrian-American filmmaker and his daughter, who were both killed in a 2005 terrorist bombing in Jordan.

In an unpublished order filed Sept. 26, a panel of the First District Appellate Court affirmed the decision of Cook County Circuit Judge Lynn M. Egan, who had granted a motion filed by Hyatt and related business entities to dismiss the suit brought by the family of Moustapha Akkad and his daughter Rima Akka Monla, as well as Moustapha’s widow, Sooha Akkad, and additional plaintiff Michael Butler.

The order was delivered by Justice Nathaniel R. Howse Jr., and Justices James Fitzgerald Smith and Terrence J. Lavin concurred.

The suit was filed against Hyatt in 2007, almost two years to the day following the terrorist attack on the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Amman, Jordan that claimed the lives of Moustapha Akkad and his daughter, and severely injured Moustapha’s wife, Sooha, and Michael Butler, another registered guest at the hotel.

The Nov. 9, 2005, attack came as part of a coordinated suicide-bombing attack by members of the Islamic terrorist organization al Qaeda in Iraq against three Amman hotels. The attacks killed 60 people in all, including seven employees at the Amman Hyatt.

Most of those killed in the attacks were in a ballroom attending a wedding at the Amman Radisson SAS Hotel.

In the wrongful death action brought by the Akkad family and Butler, the plaintiffs allege that the Chicago-based hotel chain was negligent by not providing sufficient security to prevent the attack and subsequent loss of life.

Named defendants in the suit include Global Hyatt Corp., now known as Hyatt Hotels Corp., Hyatt International Corp., Hyatt Corp., Hyatt Hotels Management Corp., and Hyatt International Holdings Corp.

The plaintiffs’ complaint alleges Hyatt failed to “reasonably protect their guests from violence,” because the hotel did not operate metal detectors or x-ray equipment at the hotel entrances, or provide enough security guards or bomb-sniffing dogs.

Plaintiffs brought the action against the Hyatt defendants in Cook County because Hyatt is headquartered here.

In response, the defendants asked the judge to dismiss the suit under the doctrine of forum non conveniens, arguing that they could not produce enough evidence or witnesses to properly try the case in Cook County.

The Hyatt defendants noted that the company that actually owns and operates the hotel is based in Jordan, that many of the documents and witnesses needed to argue the case are in Jordan and that the Jordanian government would not compel those documents or witnesses should the case be tried in the U.S.

Egan, the trial judge, agreed, noting also that Jordanian law would need to be applied in the case, and there is no official English translation of Jordanian law, which is written in Arabic.

The plaintiffs appealed the judge’s decision to dismiss the case, arguing that Egan had abused her discretion in the matter.

They argued in their appeal that Cook County is the most appropriate location to hold the trial as witnesses “might feel an emotional burden from returning to Jordan for trial;” the injuries were the result of hotel security policies created at Hyatt headquarters in Chicago; and that relevant documents pertaining to hotel security might be stored in Chicago.

The appellate court, however, upheld Egan’s reasoning in finding that the Jordanian legal system may represent the most convenient forum in which to hold a trial on the suit.

In their order, the justices discounted concerns over potential witnesses’ emotional trauma, and noted that the plaintiffs presented insufficient evidence that general Hyatt policies played any role in the 2005 bombings.

“Even if inadequate security policies lead to plaintiffs’ injuries, those policies were implemented in Jordan,” Howse wrote for the panel. “The bombing occurred in Jordan. Plaintiffs’ relationship to Hyatt defendants is centered in Jordan, not Chicago. “

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