Judge orders damages of nearly $1.5 billion for family of kidnapped former Florida FBI agent Levinson

Robert Levinson, prior to his kidnapping in 2007. Photo from the Levinson family.

U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly has ordered the Islamic Republic of Iran to pay $1.457 billion in damages to the family of former Florida FBI Agent Robert Levinson, who was kidnapped by Iranian officials in 2007 and apparently died in captivity.

He was the longest held civilian hostage in American history when his family reported his death earlier this year.

The judge’s order, signed late last week, orders the Iranian government to pay Levinson, his wife, Christine, and their seven children a total of $1.457 billion in compensatory and punitive damages as punishment for “outrageous behavior” and to deter such conduct in the future.

His kidnapping caused “immeasurable suffering’’ to Levinson and his family,’’ the judge ruled.  Iran’s conduct and torture of U.S. citizens is part of a longstanding pattern and policy, he added.

Levinson was kidnapped in early 2007 on the island of Kish, a resort in the Persian Gulf near Iran while helping the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency investigate a money laundering scheme that involved the sale of Iranian oil.

He was a career law enforcement agent who retired from the FBI and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 1998 after 33 years with the two federal agencies and began working as a private investigator from his home near Fort Lauderdale.  He worked internationally in many dangerous situations as a federal agent after after he opened his own private investigative business.

Retired career law enforcement officer Robert Levinson was kidnapped 12 years ago in a hostile foreign country. His family does not know if he is alive but has filed a lawsuit against the government of Iran. Photo from the Levinson family.

After his kidnapping in 2007 family members received a number of communications from Iran and pictures of Levinson in a bright orange jump suit.  In a video, Levinson pleaded for help in a quivering voice. Once an Iranian news agency published a report that Levinson was being held by Iranian security forces and would be released “in a few days.” That never happened.

Mrs. Levinson and other family members announced his death on a web site they established as part of an effort to win his freedom.

The family has not recovered a body and does not know exactly how he died, but were told by Iranian officials it happened before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted around the world.

David L. McGee, a former federal prosecutor who worked with Levinson on a number of Florida drug smuggling cases, represented the family for more than a decade and filed the civil suit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. two years ago.

Florida Phoenix columnist Lucy Morgan wrote late last year about the Levinson kidnapping, the lawsuit and the suffering of Levinson’s family over all these years.

McGee said the judgement against Iran is the largest ever in a case brought against a terrorist state under the U.S. Sovereign Immunities Act.

“But this is no source for celebration,” McGee added. “It is large because it reflects the immense pain and emotional trauma suffered by Mr. Levinson, his wife and seven children and the egregious behavior of the Iranian government in its treatment of Mr. Levinson and his family.

“Every member of the family would gladly surrender the award for the safe return of their husband and father.”

McGee’s law firm, Beggs & Lane of Pensacola, has represented the family pro bono for 13 years.  Collecting damages from Iran could take years since it will likely involve seizing assets in countries that will recognize a judgement from an American court.

An earlier version of the story showed a different amount of the damages. The total number has been corrected.

Lucy Morgan
Pulitzer Prize-winner Lucy Morgan was chief of the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times capital bureau in Tallahassee for 20 years, retiring in 2006 and serving as senior correspondent until 2013. She was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. The Florida Senate named its press gallery after Morgan, in honor of her two decades covering the Legislature.