A law firm known for its work on behalf of U.S. victims of international terrorism has taken on a case closer to home in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Attorneys for the Miller Firm, based in Orange, Virginia, filed a lawsuit in Charlottesville Circuit Court on Tuesday on behalf of two sisters who said they were injured when their car was rammed during the “Unite the Right” rally last weekend in Charlottesville. The sisters, Tadrint and Micah Washington, claim the rally organizers and participating groups violated Virginia state laws against aiding acts of terrorism and by participating in a civil conspiracy.
The suit asks for a jury trial, $3 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages.
It’s the Miller Firm’s first case in which the alleged terrorists are U.S. nationals, though the firm is known for its fights against foreign entities providing material support to terrorists overseas. Timothy Litzenburg, one of the Washington sisters’ lawyers, said the firm took the case as a result of circumstance, but it’s a “natural fit” given the firm’s experience.
The Washingtons are close friends of the firm’s owners, Michael and Nancy Miller, who are based in McComb, Mississippi. The sisters are originally from Mississippi.
“You would not think that moving from southern Mississippi to Charlottesville would increase the chances that you’re involved in a white supremacist riot,” Litzenburg said.
The man accused of driving the car, James Alex Fields Jr., was charged with the murder. Paralegal Heather Heyer, 32, died following the crash, and the FBI, U.S. Attorneys Office and Department of Justice Civil Rights division are investigating. On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions labeled the attack an act of domestic terrorism.
Litzenburg said the Miller Firm is “increasingly viewing [itself] as an anti-terror law firm.”
Jason Kessler, the rally’s lead organizer and a defendant in the suit, was not immediately available for comment. Defendant Mike Peinovich, a white nationalist blogger who runs “The Right Stuff” podcast, said in an email he did not have a comment at this time. Peinovich is accused of aiding and promoting the rally.
Here are the basics of the lawsuit:
—The defendants: The defendants are Kessler; Fields Jr., and other leaders of the alt-right who the lawsuit claims helped organize and promote the event. That includes white supremacist Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute, former Klu Klux Klan leader David Duke and Peinovich. There are also organizational defendants, like the Council of Conservative Citizens, Vanguard America and The Daily Stormer. Litzenburg said the lawyers could add more defendants as they learn who was involved. The complaint includes “John Doe” placeholders for those people. As of writing, there are 28 named plaintiffs.
—The lawyers: In addition to Litzenburg, other plaintiffs attorneys include Michael Miller, David Dickens and Jeffrey Travers, all of the Miller Firm. It is unclear who will represent the defendants, who are still being served.
—The details: Central to the case is the car hitting protesters during the rally. According to the lawsuit, the Washingtons were not involved in the rally or counter protests, and were on their way home that afternoon. They were rerouted from their normal route through Charlottesville due to detours. It was there, between Main and Water streets, that Fields allegedly drove his Dodge Challenger into the back of their car, injuring both sisters, who were later treated at the hospital.
—The arguments: In addition to common-law claims like intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault and battery, and civil conspiracy, the lawsuit claims a violation of Virginia state law that bars “committing, conspiring and aiding and abetting acts of terrorism.” The law defines acts of terrorism as violence committed with the intent to “intimidate the civilian population at large” or “influence the conduct or activities” of the federal, state or local government “through intimidation.”
Litzenburg said he doesn’t think there will be any contest “that Mr. Fields acted with malicious intent.” The novel legal challenge will be showing how the individual and organizational defendants provided support for the violence.
The theory is similar to those brought by U.S. citizens against foreign countries over terrorist attacks under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. In those situations, lawyers have to show the country provided material support, usually in the form of funding, training or logistics for the terrorists. In this case, Litzenburg said, the lawyers will need to show alt-right and white nationalist groups supported Fields’ alleged terrorism via funding, organizational help and other means. Litzenburg said it was clear from messages the defendants posted online before the rally that they came to Charlottesville “with intent to attack and maim and kill.”
“I think in some ways it will be a unique and novel legal approach, but I don’t think it’s going to be terribly hard to prove,” Litzenburg said.
—The goal: The lawsuit asks for more than $3 million in damages, but Litzenburg said the ”whole reason” to file the lawsuit is to bring the case before a jury in Charlottesville. Charlottesville citizens, like the Washington sisters, deserve a chance to evaluate for themselves what happened in their city.
“I think that it’s scary times we live in today, that these things are allowed to go forward,” he said. “I’m very proud to represent the Washington sisters, who have the courage to stand up to fascism, when our own president doesn’t.”