New Case: Georges v. United Nations

I am a little late on this, but I wanted to note the recent complaint by several Haitians on behalf of themselves and a putative class against the United Nations, The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, Secretary-General Ban, and former Under-Secretary-General Edmond Mulet. The claims are for negligence, negligent supervision, intentional infliction of emotional distress, nuisance, and breach of contract, all arising out of the cholera epidemic that has afflicted Haiti and that the plaintiffs say is the fault of the UN mission in the country.

The merits of the dispute are obviously important, but I will be looking as well at issues of service of process and immunity. It seems to me that the UN itself is likely immune from suit under International Organizations Immunity Act, 22 U.S.C. § 288a(b), which provides:

International organizations, their property and their assets, wherever located, and by whomsoever held, shall enjoy the same immunity from suit and every form of judicial process as is enjoyed by foreign governments, except to the extent that such organizations may expressly waive their immunity for the purpose of any proceedings or by the terms of any contract.

And if we look at the exceptions to foreign state immunity under the FSIA, 28 U.S.C. § 1605, it’s difficult to see that any could apply.

Similarly, with regard to UN officials such as the Secretary-General, under 22 U.S.C. § 288d:

Representatives of foreign governments in or to international organizations and officers and employees of such organizations shall be immune from suit and legal process relating to acts performed by them in their official capacity and falling within their functions as such representatives, officers, or employees except insofar as such immunity may be waived by the foreign government or international organization concerned.

It seems clear that Ban and Mulet are being sued for “acts performed by them in their official capacity and falling within their functions …” So it seems the immunity statute will likely apply.

Even leaving the statute aside, it’s not clear how one could serve process on the United Nations. One could deliver a summons to Ban or any other official while he is out and about in New York City. But under the UN Headquarters Agreement, “The service of legal process, including the seizure of private property, may take place within the headquarters district only with the consent of and under conditions approved by the Secretary-General.” Maybe FRCP 4(f)(3), which permits alternate methods of service, could help? Well, here’s an interesting twist: the rule applies only to service “at a place not within any judicial district of the United States.” The UN headquarters may be inviolable, as an embassy is inviolable, but—and I am no public international law expert—it seems to me that it’s within the Southern District of New York, right?

The bottom line seems to be that the case will likely be dismissed on immunity grounds.

About Ted Folkman

Ted Folkman is a shareholder with Murphy & King, a Boston law firm, where he has a complex business litigation practice. He is the author of International Judicial Assistance (MCLE 2d ed. 2016), a nuts-and-bolts guide to international judicial assistance issues, and of the chapter on service of process in the ABA's forthcoming treatise on International Aspects of US Litigation, and he is the publisher of Letters Blogatory, the Web's first blog devoted to international judicial assistance, which the ABA recognized as one of the best 100 legal blogs in 2012, 2014, and 2015.

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