"Very atypical" damages sought from government

The SUV, which belonged to the Swiss embassy in Washington, is towed from the scene Darcy Spencer

The husband of a woman killed by a vehicle owned by the Swiss embassy in Washington is demanding $10 million (SFr9.4 million) in damages.

This content was published on January 4, 2012 - 20:50
Marie-Christine Bonzom in Washington, swissinfo.ch

Harvey Rishikof filed his lawsuit against the Swiss government at the federal court in Washington on December 22. It is an unusually high amount, even for the United States.

Trudith Rishikof was crossing a busy street in the US capital on October 6 when she was knocked down by a four-wheel drive Swiss embassy vehicle.

The driver was a former domestic servant of Hannibal Gaddafi, son of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi. The man was involved in an incident in Geneva in 2008 that sparked a major diplomatic row between Switzerland and Libya (see related story).

Interviewed by swissinfo.ch, an embassy spokesman confirmed that the government had only been informed of the suit by the media.

“It’s the first we have heard about this lawsuit, and we haven’t been officially informed,” said Norbert Bärlocher, adding that the embassy had engaged lawyers to prepare its defence.

Gaddafi connection

The foreign ministry has not disclosed the identity of the employee, but media reports revealed that he had been “exfiltrated” to Washington for security reasons. There were fears of a reprisal against the former domestic worker in the context of the Gaddafi affair.

The embassy spokesman would only say that the employee concerned “worked at the embassy for years as a driver and messenger”. Asked whether the driver had been dismissed or suspended following the accident, Bärlocher said “he still works for the embassy but not as a driver”.

Bärlocher noted that the embassy had not been contacted directly by the police with regard to the accident but that on the day in question “someone from the embassy went to the spot”. He said the ambassador, Manuel Sager, had written a letter of condolence to Rishikof a few days later.

Bärlocher declined to comment further, saying Bern “has the lead” on the story.

Rishikof and his lawyers were not available for comment.

The price of a life

swissinfo.ch managed to obtain a copy of the lawsuit filed by Rishikof and asked Michael Krauss, a respected professor of civil law at the George Mason University near Washington, for his opinion.

Krauss said the suit contained typical and atypical aspects. He told swissinfo.ch it was “extremely frequent, even normal here in the United States” to claim damages for loss of income when someone is killed.

But in this case “her age – she was about to turn 65 – and the fact that she was doing unpaid work would factor in to lower or even cancel the possibility of pecuniary damages for loss of earnings”.

Krauss said that in the US “many plaintiff lawyers ask for much more than they can get just to make news and to attract more clients, for publicity purposes essentially”.

“Typically, damages are under one million dollars, more only if the victim was a young parent or somebody who was making a lot of money and whose death deprives his or her family of revenue,” he said.

Krauss said the amount being sought in this case was “very atypical”. “Damages for pain and suffering never went to ten million dollars in the history of Washington DC law.”

Aggravating circumstances

He said such a high sum could only be reached through the addition of punitive damages on top of compensation, by pointing to aggravating circumstances such as the driver’s alcohol abuse, the use of a mobile phone while driving or another road violation at the time of the accident.

But the suit makes no mention of such circumstances. In any case, the result – whether it goes to trial or an out-of-court settlement is reached – will depend primarily on the conduct of the driver and the victim at the time of the accident. Did the driver respect the rules of the road and was the victim using a pedestrian crossing?

The conduct of the victim is particularly important in Washington, one of six US states and territories where, if it can be shown that the victim’s negligence contributed to the accident, the accused is not held responsible.

“One very big exception to the contributory negligence rule is if the defendant was breaking the law such as speeding or driving under the influence – then the defendant carries all the responsibility and the plaintiff can recover all the damages, even if the plaintiff’s victim was negligent.”

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Embassy in Washington

Now the second-biggest Swiss embassy in the world, after Beijing (which has a larger visa section: 60 people employed in Washington, 75 in the Chinese capital).

The embassy organises at least 300 events a year in Washington alone; about 250 events are organised with the consulates throughout the United States.

The Soirée Suisse is the biggest event put together by the embassy – the 2011 event was the best attended so far, with some 1,200 guests.

The embassy welcomes about 10,000 visitors a year for events at the diplomatic compound itself and around the capital.

There are five consulates: Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, plus 23 honorary consulates, the UN mission in New York, the Business Hub in Chicago and the two Swissnex centres in Boston and San Francisco.

75,252 Swiss citizens are believed to live in the United States. Only 4,120 are registered with the embassy.

(Sources: Swiss Embassy and US Department of Commerce)

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