A federal court judge ordered North Korea to pay the parents of Otto Warmbier more than $500 million, holding the country liable for the torture and death of their son.
The case attracted international attention because of the horrific circumstances of the young man’s death, and because Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was seized by North Korea at a time of escalating tensions with the United States. Wambier was visiting the country in January, 2016 when he was prevented from leaving, accused of attempting to steal a propaganda sign, and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in a sham trial.
In a strongly-worded opinion, Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said the large award was necessary to punish and deter North Korea. “North Korea is liable for the torture, hostage taking, and extrajudicial killing of Otto Warmbier, and the injuries to his mother and father, Fred and Cindy Warmbier,” Howell wrote.
“Before Otto traveled with a tour group on a five-day trip to North Korea, he was a healthy, athletic student of economics and business in his junior year at the University of Virginia, with ‘big dreams’ and both the smarts and people skills to make him his high school class salutatorian, homecoming king, and prom king,” Howell wrote. “… He was blind, deaf, and brain dead when North Korea turned him over to U.S. government officials for his final trip home.”
Otto Warmbier was not allowed to leave North Korea for nearly a year and a half. U.S. officials learned he was in a coma in 2017 and demanded his release. He died days after his return in June 2017. Doctors said he had been in a coma for more than a year.
Fred and Cindy Warmbier and the estate of their oldest son had sought more than $1 billion in damages from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with their attorneys from McGuireWoods arguing the massive financial penalty would send a strong message to the country that it cannot take U.S. citizens hostage. The Trump administration placed North Korea on the list of state sponsors of terrorism in November 2017, after Warmbier’s death, making the extraordinary lawsuit possible.
Foreign countries generally have immunity from lawsuits in U.S. courts, but Howell noted that an exception for terrorism applied, given the “barbaric mistreatment” of Warmbier.
Howell agreed with the family’s attorneys, Richard Cullen, Benjamin Hatch and Rebecca Gantt, who had argued that Warmbier was used as a pawn in a high-stakes confrontation with the United States.
Based on the testimony, Howell concluded that “North Korea more likely than not barbarically tortured Otto to extract a false confession and then, after a proceeding characterized by North Korea as a ‘trial,’ used Otto’s lengthy sentence as leverage against the United States to further North Korea’s own foreign policy objectives.”
Howell awarded $15 million to each of Warmbier’s parents for the emotional anguish of living through their son’s disappearance, detention and death. Warmbier’s estate was also awarded $15 million for his own suffering, the extent of which Howell said could be gleaned from reports on North Korean torture methods and the damage to his body.
She accepted the estimate of an expert hired by the family that Warmbier’s estate deserved $6 million in compensation for his lost lifetime of earnings, because he likely would have risen to a high position on Wall Street.
“Otto excelled at all that he set out to do in his young life,” she wrote, and his nature “makes highly plausible that this success would have continued.”
She also awarded $96,000 for medical expenses. Howell declined to award the more than $1 billion in punitive damages requested by the family, calling it “out-of-line.”
But she awarded $150 million to each of Warmbier’s parents and to his estate, for $450,000 million — making the total demand from North Korea half a billion dollars.
“We are thankful that the United States has a fair and open judicial system so that the world can see that the Kim regime is legally and morally responsible for Otto’s death,” Fred and Cindy Warmbier said in a statement Monday afternoon. “We put ourselves and our family through the ordeal of a lawsuit and public trial because we promised Otto that we will never rest until we have justice for him.”
In emotional, wrenching testimony last week, Otto Warmbier’s parents, younger brother and sister described the agonizing months waiting for word, only to have him return so close to death that had no conscious awareness.
“Today’s thoughtful opinion by Chief Judge Howell is a significant step on our journey,” the Warmbiers said Monday, thanking “all those who knew and loved Otto, and for all those who supported us and our mission to hold Kim liable for his actions.”
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Susan Svrluga, Rachel Weiner