The state's highest court ruled Tuesday that a Lebanese bank's use of a New York account for multimillion-dollar wire transfers establishes the basis for a lawsuit here by Israeli victims of 2006 Hezbollah rocket attacks.
The lawsuit filed by American, Canadian and Israeli citizens who live in northern Israel claims Lebanese Canadian Bank supported terrorism by handling international financial transactions of the Hezbollah affiliate Shahid Foundation. The lawsuit says the money was moved through an account at American Express Bank in New York.
A federal judge in 2010 dismissed the lawsuit against the now-defunct Beirut-based bank, citing lack of jurisdiction. On appeal to a federal circuit court, the state Court of Appeals was asked to determine if there is a basis for the claims under New York's civil statutes.
"Repeated use of the correspondent account shows not only transaction of business, but an articulable nexus or substantial relationship between the transaction and the alleged breaches of statutory duties," Judge Susan Read wrote. The court's other five judges agreed.
"While it may be that LCB could have routed the dollar transactions on behalf of Shahid elsewhere, the fact that LCB used a New York account 'dozens' of times indicates desirability and lack of coincidence," the judge wrote. "Presumably, using the AmEx account was cheaper and easier for LCB than other options, and whatever financial and other benefits LCB enjoyed as a result allowed the bank to retain Shahid as a customer and to support its allegedly terrorist activities and programs."
Attorney Robert Tolchin said the case now returns to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, where he expects the claims to be reinstated. He said the ruling is especially topical right now, with Israel now the target of rocket attacks from Gaza. Tolchin is U.S. counsel for the Israel Law Center.
"The big picture, we're trying to accomplish, and in other cases like it, is to make it harder and harder for terrorist groups to obtain weapons such as rockets," Tolchin said. They had a claim against American Express, which was dismissed on separate grounds, he said.
Messages were left Tuesday for Jonathan Siegfried, attorney for Lebanese Canadian Bank.
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, director of the Israel Law Center, said they have several similar cases against banks not operating in the U.S. The 2006 rocket attacks killed 40 people and injured a few hundred, she said.
With New York the center for currency transactions into dollars, Darshan-Leitner said Tuesday's decision "really opens up American jurisdiction for banks that think they're hiding in lawless countries and they can continue and support the terrorism."
In 2011, the U.S. Treasury Department and Drug Enforcement Administration said Lebanese Canadian Bank was designated a "primary money laundering concern" under federal law for allegedly helping a Lebanese-based drug trafficking organization launder as much as $200 million a month in drug profits.