Allan Gerson, Attorney Who Helped Victims Of International Terrorism, Dies At 74

Dec 3, 2019
Originally published on December 3, 2019 7:38 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Thirty-one years ago this month, a passenger plane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The fuselage reportedly split in two, and cars on the main Glasgow road were hit by debris.

CHANG: The terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 killed 259 passengers and crew and 11 people on the ground.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Aboard that flight were 189 Americans, many were Syracuse University students who'd been studying abroad. Investigators eventually concluded that two Libyan intelligence agents were responsible for the bombing. No one thought there was a path to justice for the victims.

CHANG: No one except Allan Gerson - Gerson, a former Justice Department lawyer, spent the better part of a decade trying to bring justice to the families of those killed.

KELLY: His efforts eventually prevailed, ultimately resulting in $10 million in compensation for each victim. Allan Gerson died earlier this week at the age of 74.

CHANG: Lawyer Mark Zaid worked alongside Gerson for much of the time Gerson was trying to get compensation for the victims. Mark Zaid joins me now to talk about Gerson's legacy.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today, and I'm very sorry for your loss.

MARK ZAID: Thank you very much.

CHANG: You know, there is so much to remember with Gerson's legacy, but I do want to focus on what happened after Lockerbie. You teamed up with him when you were just this fresh law school graduate. Why did you want to join forces with him so early in your legal career, you think?

ZAID: You know, when I first contacted Allan, I had met him when I was a third-year law student. And I had come down to Washington, D.C., the next year, and I was just looking for a job. And I was just looking to ask him for some career advice. And he said, you know, I just left my law firm, and I'm now handling this case involving Pan Am 103. Would you like to work with me on it? And I think I probably jumped a little bit and said, absolutely.

CHANG: (Laughter).

ZAID: I knew people that were on the flight. It was very personal to me. And that opportunity was a chance in a lifetime that I will always be thankful for.

CHANG: That said, I mean, the legal battle that lay ahead of you must have been daunting because what you did had never really been done before; that is suing a foreign government for complicity in terrorism - in this case, Libya. How did people first react to this legal strategy when you were shopping it around?

ZAID: It was not well thought of, quite frankly. We went to a number of law firms around D.C. And they, one after the other, declined to participate in it. Allan was a real visionary and always optimistic that we could eventually achieve success. And ultimately, we persuaded a firm to join with us. And we filed the first lawsuit first in Scotland in October of '93 and then in the United States here in D.C. But it really took us changing the actual law in 1996 that allowed, eventually, the settlement in 2003.

CHANG: Right. This is the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act that you're talking about right now.

ZAID: Correct.

CHANG: What was it like to work alongside Allan Gerson during such an important time? I mean, you guys were making new law.

ZAID: It was very exciting. It was very frustrating. I mean, we spent more than a decade trying to pursue this cause. And Allan was a very jovial fellow. He had a lot of artistic talent. He was also a very achieved photographer and jewellery maker. And he brought that type of enthusiasm to his legal practice. And he never lost optimism at - all the time, we hit roadblock after roadblock in trying to pursue this case. I mean, nobody had ever done this before.

CHANG: How would you characterize Gerson's legacy both as a lawyer and as a human?

ZAID: You know, he loved his family so very much and wanted to always help. I mean, that's really what he was all about was to help other people. And the work that he did on the Pan Am 103 case - you know, who could ever say if it would have ever happened if he had not had this vision of trying to get compensation for families? To get accountability for the victims really is going to be his lasting legacy and one he deserves.

CHANG: Mark Zaid is an attorney and a former colleague of Allan Gerson, who died earlier this week.

Thank you very much for speaking with us today.

ZAID: Thank you so much for remembering Allan.

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