CINCINNATI — The family of Otto Warmbier, the Ohio man who died after being imprisoned in North Korea, has been awarded $500 million in a lawsuit against the country.
Fred and Cindy Warmbier of the Cincinnati suburb of Wyoming, Ohio, requested $1.05 billion in punitive damages and about $46 million for the family’s suffering in a motion filed in October in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
On Monday, Judge Beryl Howell ruled that the family had established its right to relief, granting the motion for default judgment but not for the full amount.
“We put ourselves and our family through the ordeal of a lawsuit and public trial because we promised Otto that we will never rest until we have justice for him,” the family said.
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Howell ruled that North Korea was liable for the torture, hostage taking, and extrajudicial killing of Otto Warmbier and the injuries to his mother and father. Howell’s opinion opened with a mother’s anguish.
“What the heck did you do to my kid?” Cindy Warmbier testified in a Dec. 19 hearing, the opinion said.
“An American family, the Warmbiers, experienced North Korea’s brutality first hand when North Korea seized their son to use as a pawn in that totalitarian state’s global shenanigans and face-off with the United States,” court documents said. “Having been compelled to keep silent during Otto’s detention in North Korea in an effort to protect his safety, Otto’s parents have since promised to ‘stand up’ and hold North Korea accountable for its ‘evil’ actions against their son.”
Howell said the estate of Otto Warmbier is entitled to $21 million in compensatory damages and $150 million in punitive damages. Fred and Cindy Warmbier also are entitled to $15 million in compensatory damages and $150 million in punitive damages.
Otto Warmbier, 22, traveled in December 2015 to North Korea on a tour. As he was about to leave in January 2016, North Korean authorities arrested him, accusing him of committing a “hostile act” that threatened the “single-minded unity” of the country’s citizens.
North Korean officials alleged he acted at the behest of a church in Ohio — which he didn’t attend — as well as the CIA, the motion states. He was charged and convicted in a show trial of stealing a poster from a hotel.
A month later, all communication ceased.
Otto Warmbier spent a year and a half imprisoned.
► June 12: Trump on Otto Warmbier: ‘Otto did not die in vain’
► May 2: Trump hints at release of American prisoners held in North Korea
The Warmbiers had been nervous about their son’s trip to North Korea. Otto Warmbier, then 21, was a University of Virginia student.
“Otto had an ‘open mind’ and ‘wanted to explore,’ and he viewed the trip to North Korea as an opportunity to experience a different culture and way of life,” court documents said.
When he didn’t call his family after his scheduled departure from North Korea, the tour company, Young Pioneer Tours, told them “everything was fine” and that his inability to leave North Korea was just a misunderstanding, according to court documents.
After he was detained, the U.S. State Department told the family that their son would “be home in six months.” Department officials also told the family to stay quiet.
The State Department under administrations of both presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump told the Warmbiers not to speak to media outlets about their son’s detention because “North Korea was ‘going to want something for Otto,’ and the more the family spoke publicly, ‘the more it’s going to cost,’ ” court documents said.
In February 2016 in Pyongyang, North Korea, Otto Warmbier read from a prepared statement before state media, declaring he committed the “severe crime” of stealing a propaganda poster from a hotel.
Court documents outline the many “untruths” in Otto Warmbier’s confession. Experts testified that the confession was “coerced” and “completely manipulated.”
He also spoke with “unnatural” language that sounded as if he had “been forced to memorize” the words, court documents said. Phrases like “crime task” and “quietest boots for sneaking” were cited as being North Korean phrases.
► April 26: Warmbier family sues North Korean government, alleging torture
► Jan. 30: Trump to Warmbier family: ‘You are powerful witnesses to a menace’
During the confession, Otto Warmbier begged for mercy but was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
After his release in June 2017 on what the North Korean government called a humanitarian gesture, Otto Warmbier was returned to the United States in a coma, suffering extensive brain damage. Court documents said he was blind and deaf.
His mother had hope that her son could recover into the man she once knew. But when he landed June 13, 2017, at Cincinnati Municipal Lunken Airport, she said her hopes were shattered.
The family said Otto Warmbier’s condition was “horrible and unrecognizable.” His mother and sister ran off the plane after seeing him.
He died a few days later.
The North Korean government, which never defended itself against the Warmbiers’ lawsuit, said Otto Warmbier had suffered from botulism poisoning and then took a sleeping pill.
The family claimed that North Korea has “perfected its means of terrorizing” both its own people and others.
“Today’s thoughtful opinion by Chief Judge Howell Is a significant step on our journey,” the family said in its statement.
It’s unclear whether the Warmbiers will receive any money from North Korea. North Korea does not have an embassy in the United States. Its mission to the United Nations in New York City did not respond to calls Monday.
► September 2017: What destroyed Warmbier? Coroner’s report deepens mystery
► August 2017: North Korea releases Canadian pastor on humanitarian grounds
“It’s another government and one that doesn’t cooperate much with the United States,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. “The question is how to find assets that are probably in the United States that the parents could secure.”
Much like the USS Cole incident, in which a U.S. judge held Sudan liable for the suicide bombing of a Navy ship that killed 17, governments that don’t show up in court often end up receiving a default judgment, Tobias said.
“I think the judge is clear that she was trying to deter and punish bad behavior by the North Koreans. Hopefully, it will have that effect,” he said.
Contributing: Sam Rosenstiel and Anne Saker, The Cincinnati Enquirer. Follow Sarah Brookbank on Twitter: @SarahBrookbank