LaVenture v. United Nations: The Romance of the Process Server

A theater of the absurd played out on the streets of Manhattan last week. The plaintiffs for a class of Haitian victims of the cholera epidemic seeking to sue the United Nations and several of its officials in the Eastern District of New York hired a process server to serve the summons and complaint on Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. (Note that this lawsuit is separate from Georges v. United Nations, which I’ve covered before). According to The New York Times, the process server claims he got the job done:

In what the lawyers called a precedent, they said a process server was able to place, into Mr. Ban’s hands, a summons and complaint, requiring a response. …

A spokesman for Mr. Ban, Farhan Haq, denied the secretary general had touched the papers, which Mr. Haq said an unidentified person had tried to give him as he was walking toward the Asia Society on Manhattan’s East Side on Friday morning to deliver a speech.

Mr. Ban “craned over to have a look,” said Mr. Haq, who was accompanying the secretary general and a security detail. Mr. Haq said one of Mr. Ban’s security aides intervened and declined to accept them. “We were not served with the papers,” he said.

Mr. Alpert, who was not present, offered a different version. “Our process server personally put the papers into Ban Ki-moon’s hands,” he said. “After he put them in his hands, a security guard with him smacked the papers out of his hands and onto the ground.”

Regardless, Mr. Alpert said, “he was served.”

The plaintiffs have not yet filed a return of service or sought a default or anything like that, so there’s no legal development to report on. But I’m always fascinated by the romance of the process server—the idea, which you sometimes see in the movies but which also has a hold among lawyers, that there is something magical about actually putting the papers into the defendant’s hands. If the Secretary General touched the papers, then the UN is potentially on the hook for billions of dollars. If he just “craned over to have a look,” then not. How can this be?

It seems likely to me that the Secretary General is immune from process under 22 U.S.C. § 288d, as I noted in my first post on the Georges case, so nothing will, in the end, turn on whether the process server managed to get the documents into his hands. But the assertion by the plaintiffs’ lawyers that the service of process here was a “precedent” seems overwrought.

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