The Trillion-Dollar Lawsuit

April 27th, 2007

Above trial lawyer Don Migliori’s desk hangs a framed American flag, its red and white stripes printed with the names of those killed in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In August 2002, Migliori’s law firm filed a trillion-dollar suit, Burnett et al. v. al Baraka et al., on behalf of the victims and their families. Nearly 9,000 plaintiffs—victims, their families, and those injured in the cleanup—have joined that suit. Its ultimate goal is to cut the financial pipelines that fuel Al Qaeda.

“It’s basically a very sophisticated money-laundering case,” says Migliori, who works in the Providence office of the Charleston firm Motley Rice. The 200 defendants include banks, charities, corporations, members of the Saudi royal family, and even governments: Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan’s former Taliban government. Migliori says more than twenty-five countries, including Bosnia and Russia, have assisted in the investigations, providing transaction records and other documents to trace the money trail. In contrast, he says, the U.S. government has refused to help.

After three and a half years, the case is still stuck in what are called Rule 12 motions, a threshold stage establishing the plaintiffs’ right to proceed. U.S. judges have already dismissed some defendants (including al Baraka and two Saudi princes) on the grounds of sovereign immunity, but Migliori and his colleagues argue that the defendants funded Wahabist charities in their individual capacities and can be prosecuted.

In separate litigation, Migliori and a partner represent fifty families that opted not to accept the federal 9/11 victims-compensation package, instead reserving the right to sue the aviation and security companies and find out exactly what happened on the planes. But that case, too, is stymied—this time by the Transportation Security Administration, which has declared evidence requested by both sides to be sensitive to national security. Migliori says his side is ready to proceed, that the 9/11 Commission Report contains enough evidence to make his case. “Once you put weapons on a plane,” he says, “you’ve got a breach in duty both by the screening companies and by the airlines. That’s our position. We are asking for a trial within the next year.”

Heading the terrorism-financing case is the infamous trial lawyer Ron Motley, who made his fortune and reputation suing the tobacco industry; representing the attorneys general of all fifty states, he negotiated a $248 billion resolution. The two 9/11 suits have cost more than $15 million worth of investigation so far, Migliori says.

Still, he says, “I don’t think I could ever go back to practicing real law. I don’t think I could do a will, or a car-wreck case. I think what we do at our firm is the purest form of plaintiff work. There are plenty of criticisms of our tort system, but we try to take cases that have a lot more than compensation in mind—that have some other purpose. And as a result, we do play into diplomatic relations. We do play into international politics. And, for me, that makes what we do not just more interesting but meaningful.”

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Related Issue
November / December 2005