Victoria Cummock on the Lessons of the Pan Am 103 Litigation

It was December 21, 1988 and Victoria Cummock was in Miami awaiting the return of her husband John Cummock from London for Christmas. 

Victoria Cummock
(Photo: Derek Hudson)

Victoria Cummock was the mother of three young children, aged three, four and six.

Her husband never made it home.

Pan Am 103 was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie, killing all 259 people on board. A bomb was put on the plane before takeoff and detonated over Lockerbie.

John Cummock was at the front of the plane in seat 3A.

Victoria knew her husband was on the plane when she saw the iconic photograph of the crashed nose cone of the plane lying in a field in Lockerbie. 

In front of the plane on the ground, Victoria could see John’s attache case. She had given it to her husband as a gift.

For thirty-three years, Victoria Cummock has been seeking justice for her husband and for her family.

She is the founder and CEO of the Pan Am 103 Lockerbie Legacy Foundation.

“On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 was blown out of the sky,” Cummock recalled to Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last month. “It was a flight from London to New York that blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland. It scattered the contents of the plane and the people in the plane over 845 square miles. Eleven people on the ground in Lockerbie, Scotland were killed when two residential neighborhoods were set ablaze.”

“This attack against America created the largest recorded crime scene and remains the oldest cold case of mass murder in U.S. and U.K. history.”

“Terrorists have targeted the United States for decades. And threats still remain a constant today. The response by our government to this attack has impeded due process, justice and accountability for those who perpetrated this act.”

“Tragically, the U.S. government has never led the investigation or prosecuted anyone regarding this case. The U.S. government abdicated the lead role of the investigation and prosecution to the Scottish police, which happened to be the smallest police force in the U.K. as well as the least funded.”

“There was a criminal trial in 2003 at the International Court at the Hague, under Scottish law. That was in 2003.”

“I have always wondered, with America’s vast reach, power and might, why that wasn’t utilized to pursue justice and accountability for the murder of American citizens aboard Pan Am 103.”

“Aside from issuing criminal indictments in 1991 and criminal charges in 2020, the U.S. has never pursued, arrested or prosecuted any suspect.”

“The family members wonder why the U.S. quietly abdicated the lead role to Scotland, not even to the UK, and handed over full authority to Police Scotland, which had the smallest staff and least funded police force in mainland Britain, to lead an investigation and prosecution of international scope into multiple state terror sponsors and dozens of inter-continental suspects.”

“Knowing the limitations of Scottish law, the differences between Scottish and American law in terms of admissibility of evidence as well as witnesses, and the fact that the terrorists did not attack Lockerbie, we have always wondered why allow Scotland to ultimately decide who, how and when to criminally prosecute the mass murderer of Americans.” 

“To date, only one Libyan suspect – al-Megrahi – was convicted and then released after eight years on compassionate grounds.” 

“There is still an ongoing posthumous appeal to this conviction. No one believes that if al-Megrahi did have a hand in this, that he could have acted alone to perpetrate an attack of this magnitude. But after decades of U.S. pragmatic foreign policy, the true perpetrators of this attack will probably never be known. Informants and witnesses die, memories fade, and evidence deteriorates or disappears.” 

“We wonder if the real culprit for all terrorism is capitalism and the corruption and violence it fosters? Is political expediency for commerce, or business as usual, the only brand of American justice? Is this a case of deflected culpability for U.S. military attacks such as the July 3, 1988 USS Vincennes warship missile shooting down of Iran Air flight 655, which killed 290 civilians in Iranian airspace?” 

You had a case against Pan Am and a case against Libya. Let’s talk about the case against Libya first. 

How did the $2.7 billion settlement with Libya – $10 million per family – come about? 

“Bruce Smith was the first to sue Libya in court. Bruce Smith was a Pan Am pilot. His wife was on Pan Am 103. His case was immediately thrown out on the grounds of sovereign immunity. Citizens could not sue governments.  It was infuriating to find out that Pan Am and other corporations were going after frozen Libyan assets in the United States but we couldn’t. They could just apply to the Department of Commerce for their losses. We set out to change foreign sovereign immunity in the case of state sponsored terrorism. We lobbied Congress to hold hearings.”

“In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law. I was at the bill signing ceremony and received one of the signing pens. The law opened up civil courts to victims of international terrorism.”

And it was retroactive?

“We made it retroactive not only to Pan Am 103 but to the Iranian hostages – retroactive to all Americans who had suffered from terrorism.” 

“President Clinton signed this bill into law. The lawyers who represented the family members against Pan Am automatically filed a lawsuit in court. I stood behind the President and watched him sign this bill into law. And when we came down off the dias, the media came up to me and said – did you know that Lee Kreindler just filed a mass lawsuit for all of his clients against Libya? That was a surprise to me.”

“There were 270 cases filed against Libya. The majority were filed in New York, where Kreindler operated. My case was filed in Washington, D.C.”

“All of the cases were then consolidated into the New York federal jurisdiction, unfortunately. A plaintiffs’ committee was put together. The Kreindler firm had the most cases and he became the lead on the plaintiffs’ committee. It was Lee Kreindler and the plaintiffs’ committee who put together in 2003 the settlement offer. Sadly, it was a no fault offer.”

What do you mean by a no fault offer?

“The Libyans were not taking responsibility. There was no admission of wrongdoing. Further, it required the executor of the estate to indemnify and protect Libya from any and all future legal actions or lawsuits brought against Libya. I was John’s estate representative and executor. It was going to require me to go out and get signatures from all family members, anybody who could potentially want to go after Libya. I would have to get their signatures that they wouldn’t sue Libya. That caused huge distress for the families.”

Cummock refused to accept the settlement offer.

“The problem was that when 269 out of 270 estates wanted to take the settlement offer, at the eleventh hour my lawyers, Alan Gerson and Doug Rosenthal, called me and said – we can’t be preparing all of our clients’ cases for settlement and your case for trial. You have to find a new lawyer.” 

“I was shocked. I was very discouraged and dismayed, but I certainly did understand. These attorneys were the ones who helped us write the law and move through Congress and to the UN Security Council to open up the civil venue in the United States.”

“I was very grateful to them. Without them, an interior designer and a Pan Am pilot and a handful of others would never have been able to make such a monumental change for victims rights.”

“But here I was, one of the first people who had started this whole journey, I had to find myself a new lawyer. And I did. I was extremely fortunate to be able to work with Jodi Flowers and Ron Motley at Motley Rice. They were involved in the 9/11 cases against the Saudis. I had been working with them as an expert witness on their case. I called them up and said – I’m in need of a lawyer. I’ve just been cut loose because I didn’t accept the settlement. Ron and Jodi took my case, had it remanded back to federal court in Washington under Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly. When the Gaddafi Charitable Foundation reached out to negotiate with us, it was Motley Rice and a group of six attorneys that went with me to Paris to start the negotiations while still pursuing a case in federal court in Washington, D.C.”

“And we did negotiate restitution with the Gaddafi Charitable Foundation.” 

Did you secure admissions of wrongdoing?

“All of that is sealed.” 

Did you meet with Muammar Gaddafi?

“I‘ve only said that we met with representatives of the Gaddafi Charitable Foundation in Paris. We had numerous negotiation sessions over nineteen months. The outcome was restitution that was enforced by the federal court judge in Washington.”

Is the restitution figure public?

“All of the cases were unfortunately sealed by both Judge Kollar-Kotelly and the Libyans. All of the proceedings were held behind closed doors.” 

“The restitution that I got was what I was looking for. I never had an issue with the amount of money that had been offered. It was the terms and conditions of the no fault offer.”

You must have been disappointed that if there were admissions and apologies, they were never made public.

“Unfortunately, we never got any support from our government for a civil or a criminal trial. What I’ve seen over the last 33 years is an abandonment and often a betrayal of the victims and their families. It is heartbreaking.”

What about the settlement in the case against Pan Am?

“The day that we were going into the first day of trial to pick a jury on my case, Pan Am said – what do you want? And I told them what I wanted. You don’t have to pay me a penny more or a penny less. But you have to pay me right away. And this is what I want. Either that, or we are just going to start the trial. It was that morning that Pan Am agreed that they would, within a week, send the settlement to my attorneys, which they did.”

Do you feel free to say how much they paid?

“In my case, I had a $10 million settlement with Pan Am.”

You were one of 270 who said no to the global settlement with the Libyans. What advice would you give to others similarly situated in mass tort cases?

“First of all, you have to find a lawyer willing to take your case to trial. For those victims who are young children or retired adults, people who are not wage earners, most attorneys feel it’s a waste of time. If you don’t opt in to what they are being offered, you have to find yourself another attorney.”

“I was fortunate enough that I was working with the Motley Rice firm. I highly recommend them. Jodi Flowers, Mike Elsner, Mary Sciavo – the team there is just stellar. They are willing and have taken these kinds of cases to trial. They have done an outstanding job in getting just restitution. In my case, you have to understand that it was not just the compensation. I was not going to sign a no fault settlement offer regardless of the dollar amount. I wanted an apology as well as the restitution that I felt was due for me and my children.”

[For the complete Interview with Victoria Cummock, see 35 Corporate Crime Reporter 34(10), September 6, 2021, print edition only.]

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