The story broke on Twitter that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) has been served with process in the case of Aljabri v. bin Salman, a lawsuit alleging the Crown Prince attempted to have a former intelligence insider killed. Service was effectuated by Thomas Masters of Computer Forensics via MBS’s personal WhatsApp account, as well as to the social media accounts of alternative defendants, such as his MiSK Foundation. Given MBS’s phone settings, which were set to issue “read receipts,” Musters was able to confirm that the messages were opened by the defendant and a number of the alternative defendants. Musters’ affidavit includes the relevant screenshots (Exhibits A and B).
MBS is being sued under the Torture Victim Protection Act for the attempted extrajudicial killing of Dr. Saad Aljabri, a former Saudi intelligence insider who had worked extensively with the United States on counterterrorism efforts before MBS came to power and is now in exile in Canada. The development occurs on the heels of news that Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancée has also sued MBS in the United States under the Alien Tort Statute and Torture Victim Protection Act, which allow for suits for extrajudicial killing. (That complaint is here). The lawsuits have been brought by two human rights lawyers and former U.S. diplomats now at Jenner & Block LLP, Ambassador David Pressman and Ambassador Keith Harper.
The service of process gracefully surmounts one of the major hurdles to a successful suit. The service of the summons and complaint is the procedure by which courts provide notice of the existence of the lawsuit and assert jurisdiction over the person of the party served, so long as other forms of jurisdiction exist (e.g., subject matter and personal jurisdiction, per the state’s long-arm statute). Some legal analysts had speculated that civil lawsuits might significantly curtail MBS’s ability to travel to the United States because he might try to avoid being served with the complaints. But as this new development reveals, in-person service is not necessary to commence these suits.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, electronic service of process – including via social media – has become an increasingly common practice, particularly when traditional efforts have been (or are unlikely to be) unsuccessful. Even in federal courts, this practice is largely governed by state law (see, by way of example, Texas’s 2020 rules change to allow for service by electronic means), although the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure also set forth a mechanism to serve defendants internationally. The District of Columbia’s service of process statute does not enumerate electronic means, but district court judges can authorize such service upon motion so long as it is consistent with the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution and reasonably calculated to provide notice of the suit.
So with the ubiquity of social media, gone are the days of the pizza delivery ruse.
There is an irony here: MBS allegedly used text messages to harass the plaintiff and lure him back to Saudi Arabia. That same type of medium has now enabled him to be served with process. Defendants now have 21 days to answer the complaint. Stay tuned…