Relatives of victims of the August 4 Beirut port explosion stage a protest in the Justice Palace to support the judge investigating the blast, Beirut, February 10, 2022. (Photo by Houssam Shbaro/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Explainers

The Beirut Port Explosion Comes to U.S. Court

Almost two years since one of the world’s largest non-nuclear explosions destroyed the Beirut port and upended the lives of the city’s residents following decades of government corruption and negligence, on July 11, 2022, a group of nine of the blast’s victims turned to the U.S. judicial system for recourse.

The victims, all of whom are U.S. citizens or family members of U.S. citizens, are seeking to recover damages for the “extraordinary loss of human life and property resulting from the blast.” With lead counsel Ford O’Brien Landy LLP and the support of Swiss foundation Accountability Now, the victims have filed suit in Texas court against U.S.-Norwegian geophysical services group TGS ASA, which in 2019 acquired and continues to own today Spectrum Geo UK, a geophysical services company that entered into a series of contracts with Lebanese authorities between 2000 and 2012. This includes a 2012 contract in which Spectrum chartered the vessel Rhosus to come to Beirut while carrying the 2,750 tons of military-grade ammonium nitrate that would ultimately explode on August 4, 2020. 

What does this case allege? And how does it fit in with ongoing efforts by lawyers, civil society organizations, victims’ groups, and other stakeholders to achieve accountability?

The complaint and the law

The case is premised on a theory of strict liability. Most simply, it alleges that TGS ASA, when it acquired Spectrum, became liable for any of Spectrum’s assets and liabilities. This includes the harm caused as a result of wrongful conduct, which is in this case, argued to be Spectrum’s decision to select a subcontractor that allowed a substandard vessel to come to Beirut while carrying the ammonium nitrate in question. 

According to the complaint, Spectrum had been engaged in a series of four contracts by the Lebanese Ministry of Energy and Water to conduct seismic surveys. The complaint raises questions on whether these contracts were in the interests of the Lebanese people juxtaposed with how lucrative they were for beneficiaries, and flags flaws in the contracts themselves, including that the contracts were kept secret and that they were silent on monetary terms. 

It then alleges that when Spectrum chartered the vessel Rhosus to move the seismic equipment it had used in performing its obligations under the aforementioned contracts, it knew that that Rhosus was not seaworthy, that it had already been carrying 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, and that it had a problematic history of maintenance and regulatory compliance, among other issues. Further, it alleges that Spectrum and its agents failed to solicit the necessary approvals from Lebanese authorities; under Lebanese law, the importation of ammonium nitrate containing more than 33.50 percent nitrogen—which was applicable to the ammonium nitrate carried by the Rhosus—requires prior authorization from the Ministry of Economy, after the approval of the Ministry of Defense and the approval of the Council of Ministers. 

The plaintiffs seek about $250 million in damages for the loss of their loved ones’ lives as a result of the blast, for property damage, and for violations of Lebanon’s Environmental Protection Law. They have pledged to allocate any financial awards granted in the case to Lebanese victims not formally represented. Among the plaintiffs is the family of U.S. citizen Isaac Oehlers, the youngest victim of the Beirut port explosion.

TGS has denied the allegations raised in the lawsuit and claims that Spectrum acted diligently in its conduct of the survey and had no responsibility for the explosion.

The case and accountability efforts at-large

Since the Beirut port explosion, advocates from across sectors have mobilized to seek recourse for victims and hold perpetrators and responsible entities to account. Investigative journalists and OSINT researchers have conducted critical reporting and produced piece-by-piece accounting of the events. Domestic organizations have produced tangible guides to explain the rights of victims. Local lawyers have prepared domestic complaints. Victims’-led organizations have mobilized to ensure that memory of the blast remains in the public consciousness. And organizations from around the world have connected to create public pressure and coalesce around calls for an independent, international investigation into the blast. Yet a domestic investigation has stalled in the face of consistent political interference overseen by a governing elite that has evaded accountability for decades past. If allowed to proceed as planned, a domestic investigation could have the potential to uncover critical pieces of information, including who owned the ammonium nitrate, how it entered the port, and how the explosion took place. 

Taking this domestic context into account, the Texas filing is significant. It creates an additional pathway to justice, opening the door to further complaints in foreign courts, recognizing the recourse that dual citizens may have in their second countries, and coming to terms with the role of corporate and non-Lebanese actors in the explosion, without diluting the central complicity of Lebanese officials. It provides a space through which victims’ testimonies can be heard in the face of systemic silencing and through which the veneer of impunity can be lifted.

Very practically, the plaintiffs also hope that discovery in the case, the formal process through which parties will exchange information about the evidence they will present at trial, will help uncover a wider global and Lebanese network of corruption that led to the explosion and the chain of responsibility and decision-making relevant here. For example, the claim is expected to compel TGS ASA to disclose Spectrum’s communications and dealings with third parties, information that is difficult if not impossible to come by in Lebanon and that can be critical for advocates looking to understand who should be held accountable and for what behavior. Information like this can be used to inform the fora, mechanisms, and strategies through which justice is sought going forward. 

In this regard, the Texas filing is a piece of a larger movement toward accountability and anti-corruption in Lebanon. While no single case will be able to deliver justice to all victims in their diversity of background, needs, and situations, and while court-based justice cannot stand on its own as the sole form of recourse nor replace other justice mechanisms, the Texas filing has the potential to instill a legal creativity into the conversation in our understanding of who may have a claim and why. For that reason among others, it is one worth following. 

 

Mai El-Sadany is the Managing Director and Legal and Judicial Director at TIMEP.