Litigation seeking to hold SNCF liable for the deportation of Jews and other “undesirables” has been ongoing for 10 years. SNCF has never denied its actions; it has instead tried to hide behind foreign sovereign immunity.
Abrams v. SNCF
In September 2000, Abrams v. SNCF was filed in the District Court for the Eastern District of New York seeking to hold SNCF accountable for knowingly deporting Jews and others to Nazi death camps. SNCF argued that it had jurisdictional immunity under the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) and the District Court dismissed the complaint.
The Court of Appeals disagreed and reinstated the case, determining that, in the Second Circuit, the FSIA did not provide immunity retroactively to acts committed during World War II. However, in an unrelated case, the U.S. Supreme Court held, for the first time, that the FSIA was retroactive. The Second Circuit was subsequently forced to dismiss the case, signifying its disappointment by stating that “the evil actions of the French National Railroad’s former private masters in knowingly transporting thousands to death camps during World War II are not susceptible to legal redress in federal court today …”
Freund v. SNCF
In March 2006, Freund v. SNCF was filed in the District Court for the Southern District of New York. Because the FSIA was now deemed retroactive, the suit had to be filed under an exception to the immunity provision of the FSIA and therefore, plaintiffs sought damages for property taken on SNCF deportation trains.
SNCF has never denied taking property during the deportations, but has argued that plaintiffs cannot prove the company still owns the property. In September 2010, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling from the District Court that plaintiffs failed to allege sufficiently facts to take advantage of this exception to the FSIA. The last opportunity for the survivors and their family members is now the U.S. Supreme Court.
In France in 2006, members of the Lipietz family won the only substantive court victory against SNCF for its operation of transport trains. The Administrative Court of Toulouse, France rendered a favorable verdict against SNCF and awarded substantial monetary damages as reparations for transporting Lipietz family members on SNCF trains.
Before the Conseil d’Etat, the highest court in France, SNCF claimed that the deportation trains were operated by SNCF as a private enterprise, not a governmental function. Therefore, the company argued, the Toulouse Court, which is limited to hearing matters involving governmental conduct, did not have jurisdiction to hear the complaint against SNCF. The Conseil d’Etat agreed with SNCF on this jurisdictional issue and held that the Toulouse court should not have decided that case.
However, the Toulouse court’s factual findings concerning SNCF’s conduct in, among other things, using cattle cars for the deportations, refusing to provide water, food and even minimal hygienic facilities, billing the government for the transport of each victim at 3rd class passenger rates, and pursuing payment of such invoices even after the Liberation, were not called into question by the Conseil d’Etat.
In the U.S., SNCF argues that courts have no jurisdiction over it because it is an arm of the French government, not a private corporate entity. In France, SNCF argued that the administrative courts had no jurisdiction over it because it was a private corporate entity. SNCF uses these contradictory positions to try to avoid liability in all courts for its actions during the Holocaust.
To assure that there is one forum open to the victims, United States Senators Charles Schumer and Marco Rubio, United States Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and many other bipartisan cosponsors introduced S. 634 and H.R. 1193. This legislation would permit U.S. courts to exercise jurisdiction over railroad corporations in cases alleging the commission of Holocaust-related war crimes involving deportations to Nazi concentration camps.