U.K. Defense Agency Loses Appeal Over Iraq Death Negligence

The U.K. Ministry of Defence lost an appeal to avoid a negligence lawsuit by the family of a soldier killed when his lightly armored vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb while he was on patrol in Iraq in 2006.

Private Lee Ellis’ sister and daughter may sue over claims the Ministry breached its “duty of care” by assigning Ellis a vehicle that was ill-equipped to withstand so-called improvised explosive devices, the Court of Appeal ruled in London today.

The ruling “establishes a principle that the Ministry of Defence -- like any other employer -- does owe soldiers a duty of care and this duty extends to providing safe equipment,” Jocelyn Cockburn, a lawyer for Ellis’s daughter Courtney and his sister Karla, said in a statement handed out in court.

Nearly 180 British soldiers died during the country’s eight-year involvement in the U.S.-led Iraq war before troops were withdrawn in 2011. The claims in the case, some of which involve a friendly fire incident during the first days of the invasion, include claims that soldiers weren’t properly trained or given equipment to protect from attacks.

“Our thoughts and concerns remain with those that were injured and the families of those that sadly lost their lives,” the Ministry of Defence said in an e-mailed statement. “As this is likely to be subject to further legal action it would be inappropriate for us to comment further.”

Roadside Bombs

The three-judge panel upheld a lower-court ruling that the Ellis’s, and relatives of two other soldiers killed in identical circumstances, can’t sue over claims the defense agency breached European human-rights law, because the deaths occurred outside its jurisdiction. The other human-rights claims were filed by the families of Private Philip Hewett and Lance Corporal Kirk Redpath, who were killed by roadside bombs in 2005 and 2007, respectively.

In the negligence case, the Ministry argued the deaths were covered by “combat immunity” and that it’s “not fair, just or reasonable to impose a duty of care in the provision of suitable equipment,” according to the judgment. The court rejected that defense, saying the facts should be determined at trial.

The families argue the vehicle, a Snatch Land Rover, was taken out of service after soldiers were killed by roadside bombs in 2005 and “should not have been put back into such use,” according to the judgment.

The negligence ruling also applies to another set of claims in the case filed by the family of a soldier killed in a so-called friendly fire incident in 2003, and two soldiers who were injured with him. They claim the military should have provided better vehicle-recognition training and technology that could have prevented it, according to the judgment.

The ruling is a “landmark decision” showing the Ministry can’t use the legal protection of the battlefield to avoid providing adequate equipment, said Shubhaa Srinivasan, a lawyer with Leigh Day & Co. who is representing the family of Stephen Allbutt, who died in the friendly fire incident.

“It is a morally and legally indefensible position to take,” Srinivasan said. “As a prudent employer, the MoD can have no excuses now and must get on with the business of ensuring that troops are properly equipped.”

Allbutt, along with Corporal Dan Twiddy and Trooper Andy Julien were in a Challenger II tank when they came under fire from another British tank on the fourth day of the Iraq war in 2003, Srinivasan said.

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