A United States military contractor sued by a Houston woman over a drunk-driving accident on an Afghan military base wants the case to be tried under Afghan civil law.
Filed in a California court in 2014, the lawsuit evokes the kind of Fox News nightmare wherein the specter of Sharia law and its concomitant beheadings is forced upon hapless Americans. But the arguments — which were scheduled for today, but have been postponed until August — are a little more nuanced.
Here's the background: In September 2013, Houstonian Deidra Perry was working as a bus driver on two adjacent military bases in Afghanistan — one was controlled by NATO, the other solely by U.S. forces. Perry was driving two passengers when her bus was hit from behind by another bus, this one driven by Luis Osorio, who had been drinking.
Osorio, an American who worked as a maintenance electronics technician for AECOM, admitted in a deposition that he had crossed from the U.S. side to the German area of the NATO base for a "Latin Night" event. At the time, Osorio had a suspended driver's license, thanks to a pending DWI case out of Florida.
Perry suffered injuries to her neck, back, bladder and "body generally," according to the suit she filed against both Osorio and AECOM. (The suit was filed in California state court in Los Angeles, where AECOM's executive headquarters are located.)
In a rather wily move, AECOM alleges that the laws of Afghanistan, not California, apply — after all, the accident occurred in Afghanistan. Why, you ask, is that wily? Here's why: Afghan civil law generally does not recognize the concept of vicarious liability, meaning AECOM would be off the hook for Osorio's vodka-infused driving.
Perry's lawyer, Mike Doyle of Houston, argued in an April 2016 filing that "AECOM's motion is nothing more than a smoke screen to avoid liability."
The parties seem to have different understandings of just what exactly Afghan law is, and for good reason: AECOM's expert witness, Frank Vogel, who taught Islamic law at Harvard Law School for 20 years, seemed to say in his deposition that the lines between religious and civil tenets in Afghan law are blurred.
"Muslims consider Sharia law to be binding on religious, moral, social as well as legal grounds, even in the absence of a state that enforces it," Vogel said.
Clearly, Doyle argues, the Quran trumps civil code, suggesting that AECOM is throwing Osorio to the wolves: Included in their filing is a 2012 Radio Free Europe article about an Afghan man who was sentenced to 80 lashes after being found guilty of drinking alcohol, which is verboten under Sharia law.
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Similarly, Doyle argues, Sharia law has a history of treating women like second-class citizens, and, if it's applied, Perry may not even be able to testify in her own case. Perry's lawyers also claim that AECOM's vicarious liability argument is rooted in Hanafi — a fundamentally religious interpretation of Afghan law that, aside from opening the door to barbaric punishments, clearly violates Perry's First Amendment rights to have her case heard by a court free of religious constraints.
But AECOM says Doyle is blowing a smoke screen of his own. The contractor accuses him of "appealing to fears and misunderstanding surrounding Islamic law."
AECOM argues that it's not asking for Afghan criminal law to be applied, and it would not "involve the turning over of an American to an Afghan criminal court...Furthermore, the role of women in Middle Eastern courts is irrelevant. The matter is being tried in an American court, pursuant to American procedural standards." (AECOM's lawyers also call that article about the lashings "absolutely irrelevant," and was only meant to "inflame the court.")
We left a message for AECOM attorney Leslie Sheehan, which was fully permitted under Sharia law, since our purpose was not driven by sinful lust but by seeking comment for a news story. We'll update if we hear back. (We also left a message with Osorio's lawyer and will likewise update.)