Warmbier was a University of Virginia student who was visiting North Korea with a tour group when he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in March 2016 on suspicion of stealing a propaganda poster. He died in June 2017, shortly after he returned to the U.S. in a coma and showing apparent signs of torture while in custody.
Howell wrote in her opinion: “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.”
She added: “He was blind, deaf, and brain dead when North Korea turned him over to U.S. government officials for his final trip home.”
The arrest and death of Warmbier came during a time of heightened tension between the U.S. and North Korea over the isolated country’s nuclear weapons program. President Donald Trump held a first-of-its-kind summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June 2018 and plans another next year.
The judgment may be mostly a symbolic victory for now since North Korea has yet to respond to any of the allegations in court and there’s no practical mechanism for forcing it to do so.
But the family may nonetheless be able to recoup damages through a Justice Department-administered fund for victims of state-sponsored acts of terrorism and may look to tap into other assets belonging to the country.
Fred and Cindy Warmbier said they were thankful that that the court found the government of Kim Jong Un “legally and morally” responsible for their son’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,” they said in a joint statement. “Today’s thoughtful opinion by Chief Judge Howell is a significant step on our journey.”
The lawsuit, filed in April, describes in horrific detail the physical abuse Warmbier endured in North Korean custody.
When his parents boarded a plane to see him upon arrival in the U.S., they were “stunned to see his condition,” according to court documents.
The 22-year-old was blind and deaf, his arms were curled and mangled and he was jerking violently and howling, completely unresponsive to his family’s attempts to comfort him. His once straight teeth were misaligned, and he had an unexplained scarred wound on his foot. An expert said in court papers that the injuries suggested he had been tortured with electrocution.
A neurologist later concluded that the college student suffered brain damage, probably from a loss of blood flow to the brain for five to 20 minutes.
North Korea has denied that Warmbier was tortured and has said he contracted botulism while in custody.
The complaint also said Warmbier, who was from a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio, was pressed to make a televised confession, then convicted of subversion after a one-hour trial. He was denied communication with his family. In early June 2017, his parents were informed he was in a coma and had been in that condition for one year.
Though foreign nations are generally immune from being sued in United States courts, Howell cited several exceptions that she said allowed the case to move forward and for her to hold North Korea liable. Those include the fact that North Korea has been designated by the U.S. as a sponsor of terrorism, that the Warmbiers are U.S. citizens and that North Koreans’ conduct amounts to torture and hostage taking.
The penalty awarded by Howell to the Warmbiers and to Otto Warmbier’s estate includes punitive damages as well as damages for economic losses, pain and suffering and medical expenses.
The lawsuit was brought on the Warmbiers’ behalf by Richard Cullen, a prominent Virginia lawyer and former United States attorney.