Robert Stethem

CASE SUMMARY

Stethem v. Islamic Republic of Iran – Nos. Civ.A. 00-0159(TPJ), Civ.A. 00-1309(TPJ)

  • The terrorists then ordered the captain to fly to Algiers, where, upon landing around the six-hour mark, TWA 847 sat idle on the runway without air conditioning, plane and passengers alike baking in the strong African sun.

  • While Robert was not the only victim of the terrorists, he was used as an example of how much worse the torture could get if any of the passengers or crew decided to resist or disobey the hijackers. Eventually, after the demands of the hijackers to refuel the plane were met, the plane took off, setting course again for Beirut.

  • During the coverage, the camera switched to the body lying alone under the plane when Robert’s brother Patrick experienced a sickening feeling. The bloody shirt that was on the body left under the plane had the same distinct pattern as a shirt he had given Robert as a present, leading to the realization that the person the terrorists murdered was Robert.

Robert Stethem was one of 143 passengers, along with a crew of eight, aboard TransWorld Airlines (“TWA”) Flight No. 847, bound for Rome on its route from Cairo, Egypt, to San Diego, California, in the United States. On the morning of June 14, 1985, the flight was fresh from another stop: Athens, Greece, where Robert, dressed in civilian clothing had boarded beginning the first leg of his journey home to Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia after completing an underwater repair off the Athens coast for the past few weeks as part of his duties as a Steelworker Second Class.


That morning, shortly after takeoff, members of the terrorist group Hizballah, armed with guns, clubs, and grenades, hijacked the plane, ordering the captain to alter course to Beirut, Lebanon, where Amal, a terrorist group that, like Hizzballah, was made up of Shia Muslims and united in mutual hatred for Americans and the West, would provide ground support. Despite the Lebanese efforts to block the runway in order to not allow the plane to land, the Amal managed to clear the tarmac before TWA 847’s fuel ran out. Seven American passengers with names that, to the hijackers, sounded Jewish were singled out and taken to a Lebanese prison.
The terrorists then ordered the captain to fly to Algiers, where, upon landing around the six-hour mark, TWA 847 sat idle on the runway without air conditioning, plane and passengers alike baking in the strong African sun. For Robert, the heat was not the worst of it; believing Robert to be a Marine, the hijackers had begun to pay particular attention to him. Then, after offering to change places with another tormented passenger, he became a focal point of their ire.


Robert was tied up, blindfolded, and taken to the front of the plane, where regular beatings to his head, shoulders, and back were administered. A fit, stoic man known to be able to endure pain without complaint, the other passengers heard him cry out in pain at times during the abuse. While Robert was not the only victim of the terrorists, he was used as an example of how much worse the torture could get if any of the passengers or crew decided to resist or disobey the hijackers. Eventually, after the demands of the hijackers to refuel the plane were met, the plane took off, setting course again for Beirut.


After fifteen hours of almost constant beatings, Robert had not lost consciousness but could no longer stand, forcing the terrorists to drag him to the front of the plane. This was the final time Robert would be brought there, as his usefulness as an example had extinguished itself, and he was selected as the American to die. Again on the ground in Beirut, the hijackers flung open the forward passenger door and immediately shot Robert in the head, the bullet originating behind his ear and exiting on the other side of his head. He was heard to exclaim “Oh God” and was tossed out the open door, still alive, lingering immobile, and in terrible pain as blood filled his lungs during his final moments. His broken body was left on the tarmac for several hours prior to being removed.


In America, the other members of the Stetham family were together at the family home in Virginia, watching the crisis unfold on television in disbelief. During the coverage, the camera switched to the body lying alone under the plane when Robert’s brother Patrick experienced a sickening feeling. The bloody shirt that was on the body left under the plane had the same distinct pattern as a shirt he had given Robert as a present, leading to the realization that the person the terrorists murdered was Robert. A feeling of utter misery manifested itself in each member of the family that would not go away. They would all continue to suffer from the emotional fallout of Robert’s torture and death. Each was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome, which they will probably live with their entire lives without expectation of significant recovery, if any.

Three days later, the terrorists released the majority of the hostages in exchange for fuel and other concessions. The 40 remaining men were taken off the plane and stashed in various locations spread across Beirut.

By June 30, 1985, President Reagan and Lebanese officials had intervened, resulting in negotiations with Iran. After Iranian President Rafsanjani gave the go-ahead, the last of the hostages were released and driven to Syria by workers from the International Red Cross.

In 2002, Dr. Michael Engelberg offered the Stethems his knowledge and experience in seeking damages for the heinous acts committed by the terrorists. With his guidance, Robert’s parents brought a lawsuit against Iran and its Ministry of Information and Security (MOIS) in the American courts. Ending without either defendant having appeared, the court found the defendants were responsible for providing “‘material support or resources’ to Hizballah, and Hizballah and its co-conspirator Amal were the perpetrators of these heinous acts of terrorism.”


In considering the amount of damages to be assessed against Iran and MIOS for the pain and suffering Robert experienced, the court considered “the pain he experienced from beatings prior to being shot in the head; and [] the anguish of his final moments anticipating certain death and the pain he experienced after being shot while drowning in his own blood on the tarmac” as two “distinct stages,” awarding $500,000.00 and $1,000,000, respectively, along with $904,665.00 in lost future earnings to Robert’s estate.


The court also assessed solatium claims for the loss of “society and companionship” experienced by Robert’s parents and his siblings, finding that the “decedent’s parents have standing on behalf of themselves and their lineal descendants to bring loss of solatium claims.” The court awarded Robert’s parents $5,000,000 each and $3,000,000 to each sibling.


Robert’s heroism on June 14, 1985 did not go unnoticed. His sacrifice was the cover story for both Newsweek and Time, and he posthumously received a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and POW medal. In October 1995, the USS STETHEM (DDG-63) was commissioned and is now sailing as part of the Pacific fleet. Robert is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. 

In 2002, Dr. Michael Engelberg offered the Stethems his knowledge and experience in seeking damages for the heinous acts committed by the terrorists. With his guidance, Robert’s parents brought a lawsuit against Iran and its Ministry of Information and Security (MOIS) in the American courts.

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