Arent Fox LLP won a major victory on June 23 for its client, the President of the Republic of Rwanda Paul Kagame, when the US District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma denied a plaintiffs’ motion for default judgment in a wrongful death suit by the widows of the deceased presidents of Burundi and Rwanda, who were killed in an airplane explosion in 1994.

In denying the plaintiffs’ default judgment motion, US District Judge Lee R. West found that the ourt did not have personal jurisdiction over President Kagame because the plaintiffs had failed to properly serve the head of state with a copy of the summons and complaint under federal and Oklahoma law.

“The plaintiffs have offered nothing to establish that they ever delivered a copy of the complaint to President Kagame personally,” wrote Judge West. “The plaintiffs’ own evidence establish that their process servers never came within close proximity of President Kagame. … Clearly the plaintiffs have not shown that they met the requirements of Federal Rule 4(e)(2) or 4(e)(4) because they failed to establish that they delivered a copy of the complaint to Prewsident Kagame or to his ‘authorized agent.’”

The court rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments that they had substantially complied with the state of Oklahoma’s process service requirements when on May 1, 2010, they handed a copy of the summons and complaint to an Oklahoma Christian University professor and a US Secret Service Agent, who were accompanying President Kagame at the university where the Rwandan leader was scheduled to give a speech.

The plaintiffs also alleged that they “attempted to hand the documents to defendant’s driver/staff member near the car waiting for him to exit the auditorium.”

The court ruled that these efforts were not in “substantial compliance” with Oklahoma’s statute that permits service by delivery to persons who are legally authorized to receive service of process.

Judge West dismissed the plaintiffs’ argument that their May 1, 2010, efforts to serve the summons on President Kagame were sufficient because President Kagame had “actual knowledge” of the lawsuit.

“President Kagame’s actual knowledge of the plaintiffs’ lawsuit does not excuse them from substantial compliance with Oklahoma’s requirements,” wrote Judge West. “Nor does it substitute for proper service of process under Oklahoma law.”

The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that President Kagame was deliberately evading service, finding, “[t]he plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence any intentional evasion which would permit the Court to excuse compliance the rules of service.”

“Based on the foregoing, the Court concludes that the plaintiffs failed to effectuate service upon President Kagame,” Judge West concluded in denying the default judgment motion. “The Court lacks personal jurisdiction over him and the Clerk’s Entry of Default shall be set aside.”

The court granted the plaintiffs an additional 120 days in which to attempt to serve President Kagame. If the plaintiffs again fail to properly serve the Rwandan president within that time, their suit will be dismissed in it entirely, wrote Judge West.

Arent Fox partners Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper, who served as a war crimes prosecutor for the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Robert C. O’Brien, who heads Arent Fox’s Los Angeles office, Michael Cryan, and Roy Z. Silva represent President Kagame in this matter.


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