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Activist’s Parents Sue Caterpillar Inc.

Times Staff Writers

In a two-pronged legal attack, the parents of a young American activist killed two years ago while trying to block the demolition of a home in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip have filed lawsuits in Seattle and Israel, seeking compensation for their daughter’s death.

The suit filed in Israeli District Court in Haifa last week seeks damages against the state of Israel, the Defense Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces, whose bulldozer crushed Rachel Corrie to death.

The 23-year-old had taken time off from her studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., to protest the destruction of Palestinian homes by Israeli forces.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle asserts that Caterpillar Inc. violated state and international law by selling specially designed bulldozers to the Israeli military knowing that they would be used to demolish homes and endanger civilians.

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The lawsuit against Caterpillar asks for compensatory damages of at least $75,000, punitive damages and other relief. The lawsuit against the Israeli government asks for $324,000 in compensatory damages and possibly other damages that would “have a deterring and education effect.”

Although a growing number of cases have been filed in U.S. courts seeking to hold corporations accountable for alleged misdeeds in foreign countries, the latest litigation is unique in two respects, legal experts said.

Virtually all the prior cases have been filed in the U.S. by citizens of other nations, they said. And this is the first instance in which cases were filed simultaneously in courts in the U.S. and another country involving the same event, said William Aceves, an international law professor at the California Western School of Law in San Diego.

“International law clearly provides that corporations can be held accountable for violations of international human rights,” said Jennie Green, an attorney with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed the lawsuit in Seattle. Green said Corrie had been killed because “Caterpillar purposefully turns a blind eye as to how their products are used.”

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Caterpillar has been the subject of protests -- including a demonstration in front of company headquarters in Peoria, Ill., last April in which Corrie’s death was reenacted -- because of the bulldozer sales.

Last week, a company spokesman said Caterpillar stood by a statement it issued at the time of Corrie’s death: “Caterpillar shares the world’s concern over unrest in the Middle East, and we certainly have compassion for all those affected by the political strife. However, more than 2 million Caterpillar machines and engines are at work in virtually every country and region of the world each day. We have neither the legal right nor the means to police individual use of the equipment.” The statement, which is posted on the company’s website, makes no reference to Corrie’s death or the litigation.

The Israeli army had no immediate comment on the lawsuits.

In June 2003, three months after Corrie’s death, Israel’s military prosecutor exonerated soldiers involved in the incident. The army said the home Corrie was trying to protect was being destroyed in an effort to block arms smuggling.

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The lawsuit filed in Seattle alleges that Caterpillar “has aided and abetted or otherwise been complicit in the Israel Defense Forces’ ” commission of “human rights violations and war crimes” by providing bulldozers used to demolish homes in violation of international law “when it knew, or should have known, that such bulldozers were being used to commit human rights abuses.”

The bulldozers have been used to destroy about 10,000 buildings in the West Bank and Gaza, leaving 50,000 people homeless, according to the lawsuit, which also alleges that several individuals have been killed in demolitions in recent years.

The lawsuit in Haifa alleges that the Israeli defendants, including any person who had control over the Israeli forces involved in Corrie’s death, “infringed on the deceased’s right to human rights and life as are anchored in” international humanitarian law, international human rights law and other laws.

Filed by attorney Hussein Abu Hussein from the Israeli Arab town of Umm al Fahm, the lawsuit anticipates potential defenses that might be raised -- that Corrie was killed as “an act of combat” or as “an act of fighting terror” -- and urges the court to reject them.

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Both lawsuits said that at the time she was killed, Corrie was wearing a bright vest identifying her as a member of the International Solidarity Movement, a group working against the house demolitions.

The lawsuits claim that she was visible to the bulldozer driver. The Israeli army has called her death a regrettable accident and blamed protesters for deliberately placing themselves in harm’s way.

Three international law professors -- Jenny Martinez of Stanford Law School, Jack Beard of UCLA Law School and Aceves -- said the lawsuit in the U.S. was part of a growing trend of attorneys suing corporations for their alleged complicity in the acts of foreign nations in human rights violations.

Aceves said that to prevail, the plaintiffs must establish the alleged international law violations and prove that Caterpillar was complicit in them. Beard said he doubted that the plaintiffs could prevail in this case, but he also said there was no doubt that there will be a growing number of such cases.

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“U.S. courts have been pretty adamant about saying international law is part of our law,” Beard said. “No matter how much any administration may not like international law, it is part of our law.”

Weinstein reported from Los Angeles and King from Jerusalem.


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