PHAI Board Member and President File Class Action to Address U.N. Cholera Tragedy in Haiti

On March 11, 2014, Richard Daynard, University Distinguished Professor of Law at Northeastern University and President of the Public Health Advocacy Institute, Dr. Tim Howard, President of Cambridge Graduate University and PHAI board member, along with former U.S. environmental litigation attorney Stanley Alpert, and James Haggerty filed a class action in US District Court in Brooklyn, NY against the United Nations.  The lawsuit, Marie Laventure et al. v. United Nations et al.,  seeks to force the UN to take responsibility for the massive Haitian cholera contagion which has killed upwards of 9,000 Haitians and sickened hundreds of thousands, compensate victims, and bring critical sanitation to Haiti.  The contagion has since spread to the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the United States, with at least three cases of cholera confirmed in New York City since 2010, and a sustained outbreak in Mexico.

Marie Laventure is one of 1,500 plaintiffs in the legal action. Laventure resides in Atlanta, is the sister of a Haitian US citizen of New York, and the oldest of 12 siblings: two residing in New York, one residing in Atlanta, and eight in Haiti. Some of her Haitian siblings are as young as ten years old. Marie and her family lost their father and stepmother to the UN Haiti cholera contagion outbreak. She and her US brother and sisters are sending money to help their young siblings survive.

An independent panel, appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to study the epidemic that has killed more than 8,300 people and sickened more than 650,000, issued a report in 2011 that did not determine conclusively how the cholera was introduced to Haiti. However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others can prove that   U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal were the source after they set up a camp near the Meille River, which was improperly handled by U.N. contractors who dumped infected waste into the water supply.  Before this occurred, cholera was wholly absent from Haiti. The disease was endemic in Nepal and Nepalese soldiers were not screened before being sent to Haiti by the U.N.. Attorney Dr. Tim Howard stated, \”The United Nations knew that disease, injury and death would result from a cholera contagion outbreak, and that conditions in Haiti were ripe for a cholera contagion outbreak if proper sanitation was not in place.\”

The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the U.N. does not enjoy legal immunity from liability for the cholera outbreak, despite its humanitarian role in assisting Haiti.  Among the documents referenced in the lawsuit is the United Nation s 2004 agreement with Haiti, which explicitly waived sovereign immunity, stating that \”[t]hird-party claims for…personal injury, illness or death arising from or directly attributed to [the Stabilization Agreement] shall be settled by the United Nations…and the United Nations shall pay  compensation . . .\” Another document referenced in the lawsuit shows that the UN General Assembly expressly admits that international law requires the UN to pay compensation for damages caused through its operations.  Attorney Stanley Alpert added,  \”Imagine if the UN had killed 9,000 in the heart of New York City or Paris. Would they cry \’immunity\’ then? The lack of regard for the value of Haitian lives is distressing and indefensible.\”

On March 7, 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice supported the U.N. in a written court filing asserting that the United Nations\’ mission to Haiti was \”absolutely immune from legal process\” in an earlier class action suit on behalf of the country\’s cholera victims brought by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti last year.

The Haitian cholera contagion outbreak still kills approximately 1,000 Haitians each year and sickens many thousands more.

Public Health Advocacy Institute executive director Mark Gottlieb agreed that the United Nations needs to be held accountable for this public health crisis stating, \”Cholera, previously unknown in Haiti, is a severe and devastating disease that, in this case, was entirely preventable.  It is deeply disappointing and shocking that the United Nations\’ actions caused so much suffering, illness and death in Haiti and beyond.

The complaint can be downloaded here.