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Judge Orders North Korea to Pay $501M for American Student's Death

By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. on December 26, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The parents and estate of Otto Warmbier won a $501 million judgment against the North Korea government for wrongful death. Though questions remain about the legitimacy and collectability of this judgment, one thing is certain: no amount of money can undo Otto's fate and ultimate death.

American Arrested for Taking Political Propaganda Poster

Otto Warmbier was arrested Jan. 2, 2016 for allegedly taking a political propaganda poster from his hotel. After being found guilty of "hostile acts against the state," he was sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor. A year and a half later, Warmbier was released to the United States in a coma.

North Korean authorities claimed Warmbier had contacted botulism, but after discovering his teeth had been reconfigured, and a recently received long scar on his foot, his parents investigated further, and eventually filed a wrongful death suit against the North Korean government.

Warmbier Left the U.S. With "Big Dreams," but Returned Brain Dead

Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell deliberated less than a week after hearing hours of emotional testimony from Warmbier's family about the pain they suffered during his 18 month detention in North Korea, his subsequent return home in a coma, and the information they learned about his torture and time as a hostage. According to Howell, "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," Judge Howell wrote in his opinion. "He was blind, deaf and brain dead when North Korea turned him over to U.S. government officials for his final trip home."

Judge Mindful of Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act

Judge Howell faced many obstacles in this unique hearing. First, given the reclusive state of North Korea, the judge was limited to hearing arguments and evidence only from the plaintiff's side, for which the judge had to be wary. Also, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act permits U.S. citizens to sue foreign countries only under certain circumstances, and Howell needed to be careful in his written opinion to meticulously explain how each and every legal requirement had been satisfied by the plaintiffs.

What can't be explained, however, is exactly how Otto was tortured to be placed in such a vegetative state. It is also unclear how the Warmbier's will enforce Judge Howell's judgment against North Korea.

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