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Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reverses district court judgment for the defense in wrongful death case against former President and Defense Minister of Bolivia

On August 3, 2020, in Mamani v. Bustamante, No. 18-12728, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a judgment by a district court in a wrongful death case in which the plaintiffs alleged that their family members had been the victims of extra-judicial killings in Bolivia in 2003. The plaintiffs claimed that the defendants, Gonzalo Daniel Sánchez de Lozada Sánchez Bustamante (the former President of Bolivia) and José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín (the former Defense Minister of Bolivia), were legally responsible for the deaths under both Bolivian law and the Torture Victims Protection Act (“TVPA”), 28 U.S.C. § 1350.   Ten years after the initial complaint was filed, the case went to trial and the jury returned a $10 million verdict on the TVPA claims, but found for the defendants on the wrongful death claims after concluding that  no death was a “willful and intentional killing by a Bolivian soldier.”  After the jury had rendered its verdict, the district court granted the defendants’ renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law on the TVPA claims, determining that plaintiffs had failed to present a sufficient evidentiary basis that the deaths were extrajudicial killings. The plaintiffs appealed both the judgment as a matter of law on the TVPA claims and the jury verdict on the wrongful death claims, contesting the latter on the basis  that the district court allegedly abused its discretion by admitting U.S. State Department cables that the plaintiffs contended were inadmissible hearsay, On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that the district court erred in granting the judgment as a matter of law for the defendants on the TVPA claims because the district court “conflated the standard for an extrajudicial killing with the theory of liability tying defendants to the decedents’ deaths.”  The Eleventh Circuit held that evidence of deaths caused by a soldier acting under orders to use excessive or indiscriminate force could provide a legally sufficient foundation to support a TVPA claim. The Eleventh Circuit also concluded that the district court erred in admitting the State Department cables.  As a result, the entire case was remanded for a new trial.