Judge awards $501 million in damages to Warmbier family in lawsuit against North Korea

U.S. district court judge finds North Korea liable “for the torture, hostage taking, and extrajudicial killing of Otto Warmbier”


Otto Warmbier was accused of attempting to steal a political banner from a North Korean hotel and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in March 2016.

Courtesy KYODO Kyodo / Reuters | X01481

North Korea must pay over $500 million in damages to the family of the late University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, a federal judge ruled Monday. Warmbier died following 17 months of imprisonment in the country, which led his parents to file a lawsuit in April against the rogue nation for the “hostage taking, illegal detention, torture and killing” of their son. 

“North Korea is liable for the torture, hostage taking, and extrajudicial killing of Otto Warmbier, and the injuries to his mother and father, Fred and Cindy Warmbier,” Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia wrote in a ruling Monday. 

Howell awarded about $501 million in damages Monday. This figure includes an award to Otto Warmbier’s estate of about $6 million in economic losses, $96,000 in medical expenses and $15 million for pain and suffering. Howell awarded Fred and Cindy Warmbier $15 million each in solatium damages to compensate for the emotional distress they experienced. Punitive damages totaled $450 million. Howell wrote that the large award was necessary in order to punish North Korea and deter similar behavior in the future.

Otto Warmbier was arrested in North Korea in January 2016 during a tour of the country. Warmbier — who at the time of his imprisonment was a a third-year Commerce student from Wyoming, Ohio — was accused of attempting to steal a political banner from his tour group’s hotel and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in March 2016.

In her opinion, Howell wrote that the confession this sentence was based on was “plainly coerced.”

In June 2017, Warmbier was returned to the U.S. in a comatose state and died within a week of his return. Doctors said Warmbier had sustained significant loss of brain tissue.

“Before Otto traveled with a tour group on a five-day trip to North Korea, he was a healthy, athletic student of economics and business in his junior year at the University of Virginia, with ‘big dreams’ and both the smarts and people skills to make him his high school class salutatorian, homecoming king, and prom king,” Howell wrote in her ruling. “He was blind, deaf, and brain dead when North Korea turned him over to U.S. government officials for his final trip home.”

North Korea has repeatedly denied allegations of torture, arguing Warmbier had suffered from botulism and that his coma resulted from taking a sleeping pill. Yet no physical evidence of botulism was found in an autopsy.

Based on expert testimony presented in the case, Howell concluded “there is overwhelming evidence that North Korea’s barbaric acts were a substantial factor in causing Otto’s death.” 

"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," Warmbier’s family said in a statement published by the Cincinnati Enquirer.

At the University, Warmbier was an Echols Scholar and member of Theta Chi fraternity. Members of the Class of 2017 — Warmbier’s class — wore #FreeOtto stickers at their May 2017 graduation.

North Korean officials never appeared in court and did not contest the allegations in the lawsuit, leading the judge to grant default judgment in the case for Warmbier’s parents. It is unclear how North Korea will respond to Monday’s decision. 

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