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No special sharia rules in American courts for Muslims’ wrongful-death recovery

An interesting decision yesterday from the Minnesota Court of Appeals in In the Matter of Appointment of Trustee for Next of Kin of Ombabi:

Nadir Ibrahim Ombabi was a taxi driver in Minnesota and a Minnesota resident. He married respondent Nariman Sirag Elsayed Khalil in Sudan, under the Islamic law of Sudan. He died in an accident in Minnesota. His estate brought a wrongful-death claim, which settled for $183,000 in Minnesota.

But how to split the money? Minnesota law says that any recovery “shall be for the exclusive benefit of the surviving spouse and next of kin, proportionate to the pecuniary loss severally suffered by the death.” (Other states do things differently.) In this case, the court concluded that the wife was entitled to the entire amount, less expenses, because there was “no credible evidence to prove” that the other next of kin “experienced a pecuniary loss, or more importantly what that pecuniary loss is, because of Mr. Ombabi’s passing.”

Ombabi’s brother (Hosameldin Ibrahim Imbabi), however, disagreed. He “argued that the district court should apply Islamic law and, after payment of expenses from the settlement proceeds, distribute 25% of the proceeds to [Ombabi’s widow], 16.7% to Ombabi’s mother’s estate, and the remaining proceeds to Ombabi’s siblings, with the males to receive ‘twice the share of the female.’ ”

[The brother] further asserts that “the principles of the private international law should have been applied from the beginning since the law of all parties (the decedent, his widow and decedent[‘s] next of kin) is the Islamic Law and they are all Muslims and follow the specifics of the religion.” … [The brother’s] main assertion of error appears to be that the district court should have applied Sudanese Islamic law instead of Minnesota law when distributing the wrongful-death settlement proceeds…. [He] also asserts that the district court erred by refusing to honor a legal declaration issued by the Sudanese Family Court in Khartoum regarding distribution of the wrongful-death settlement proceeds under Sudanese Islamic law.

The appellate court disagreed, partly because the brother, who represented himself without a lawyer, didn’t offer adequate legal argument for his position and didn’t follow other necessary procedures. But I think it was also influenced by a basic American legal principle: American courts apply American law, rather than one rule for Muslims, one rule for Christians, one rule for Jews, and so on.

Sometimes American law does allow the implementation of foreign legal rules, or religious legal rules. A contract might, for instance, call for applying the law of Sudan, or a will might specify that the property be distributed one-fourth to the widow, one-sixth to the parents, one-sixth each to the three brothers, and one-twelfth to the one sister (whether or not that’s the sharia-mandated split). A court may well enforce such provisions, subject to any constraints imposed by American public policy. (For instance, a contract calling for the cutting off of a person’s hand would be unenforceable; a will calling for a court to apply a legal rule that requires the court to distinguish males from females might be unenforceable, though a will calling for a court to distribute property to named parties would be enforceable.)

But there, too, the principle is simple: American courts apply American law, including when an American law principle calls on American courts to enforce a foreign judgment, to apply foreign law or to follow terms in a contract or a will that deliberately track foreign or religious law. But there has to be an American law principle calling for such application of foreign law. And in this case, there was no such principle.