MIAMI (Reuters) - Lawyers filed a federal class action lawsuit against the United Nations on Tuesday to seek compensation for almost 1,500 Haitian victims of a cholera epidemic blamed on U.N. peacekeepers.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in New York's Eastern District also seeks to force the U.N. to bring sanitation and clean water to the Haitian communities in areas affected by the outbreak which started in October 2010.
An independent panel, appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to study the epidemic that has killed more than 8,300 people and sickened more than 650,000, issued a report in 2011 that did not determine conclusively how the cholera was introduced to Haiti.
However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the evidence strongly suggested U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal were the source after they set up a camp near a major river.
The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the U.N. does not enjoy legal immunity from liability for the cholera outbreak, despite its humanitarian role in assisting Haiti.
A U.N. spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The United Nations said last year that it would not pay hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation claimed by cholera victims, citing immunity under a 1946 convention.
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice took the U.N.'s side asserting in a written court filing that the United Nations' mission to Haiti was "absolutely immune from legal process" in an earlier class action suit on behalf of the country's cholera victims last year.
The lawsuit filed on Tuesday cites the United Nations' 2004 agreement with Haiti, saying it waived sovereign immunity for third-party claims for personal injury, illness or death and allowed for compensation.
"Unfortunately, what the U.N. unleashed in Haiti was a devastating contagion," said Stanley Alpert, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, a former chief of Environmental Litigation for the U.S. Attorney's office in New York.
"It was grossly negligent and utterly reckless to send in Nepalese peacekeepers and not test them for cholera," he added, noting that Haiti had been cholera-free for decades prior to the outbreak, while Nepal has a history of the disease.
The plaintiffs include several U.S. residents, including Marie Laventure, who lives in Atlanta, and lost her father and stepmother to the cholera outbreak, the lawsuit states.
The U.N. created the 2004 "stabilization" mission in the wake of an armed rebellion that brought down the government and forced then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to seek exile.
The lawsuit is similar to another filed in New York's Southern District in October by the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, seeking $2.2 billion for the Haitian government to eradicate cholera along with unspecified damages for as many as 679,000 victims for personal injury, wrongful death, emotional distress and loss of use of property and natural resources.
A third cholera-related lawsuit was filed last week in New York's Southern District against the U.N. by the Haitian-American Leadership Council (HALEC) on behalf of three Haitian plaintiffs. That suit's claims are almost identical to the IJDH case except it adds three new plaintiffs.
Pressure has been seen to be building within the United Nations itself over the Haiti cholera case.
The U.N.'s Independent Expert on Human Rights, Gustavo Gallon, a respected Colombian jurist, stated earlier this month in his annual 2014 report that the U.N. should accept responsibility for causing the cholera outbreak and compensate victims. U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay has also said Haiti's cholera victims should be compensated.
Cholera is an infection that causes severe diarrhoea and can lead to dehydration and death. It occurs in places with poor sanitation.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban launched a $2.2 billion initiative in December 2012 to stamp out cholera in Haiti over the next decade.
(Editing by G Crosse)