Halliburton Co. and KBR Inc. are entitled to the same legal protection as U.S. armed forces when serving as military contractors, a judge ruled, dismissing claims over so-called burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.
U.S. District Judge Roger Titus threw out 57 consolidated lawsuits against the companies brought mainly by military personnel who claim they suffered damaging health effects from exposure to the contractors’ pits, where items including medical waste, paints and pesticides are burned in war zones.
“The critical interests of the United States could be compromised if military contractors were left ‘holding the bag’ for claims made by military and other personnel that could not be made against the military itself,” Titus said in a decision released yesterday in Greenbelt, Maryland.
The remedy for the allegedly injured service members is through military and legislative processes, not the courts, Titus said.
Andrew Farley, KBR’s executive vice president and general counsel, said in an e-mailed statement that the company is pleased by the ruling, especially its emphasis on non-judicial means of redress.
“We look to the courts to continue this positive trend in other pending cases,” Farley said.
Susan Burke, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a phone interview that Titus’s ruling will be appealed. She declined to comment further.
A phone call to Halliburton requesting comment on the ruling wasn’t immediately returned.
The plaintiffs claim that the Houston-based companies ignored the terms of contracts with the U.S. that required safe and environmentally sound waste disposal for troops.
Titus’s decision marks a reversal of an earlier ruling in the same set of cases.
In September 2010, Titus said that KBR, the largest U.S. military contractor, and Halliburton must face the suits and that “courts must be prepared to adjudicate cases that ultimately expose defense contractors to appropriate liability.”
In yesterday’s decision, Titus cited a September 2011 ruling by the U.S. appeals court in Richmond in an unrelated case where the court said a soldier’s claim against KBR for injuries from electric shock was barred by the “political question doctrine.” The doctrine prevents courts from reviewing certain actions taken by other branches of government.
That case “creates new, binding precedent with respect to whether this court has subject matter jurisdiction over plaintiffs’ claims,” Titus wrote.
KBR faces other suits alleging harm from its military contracting activities and has said it will appeal an $85 million jury award to 12 U.S. soldiers who claim the company negligently exposed them to toxic chromium dust at a worksite in Iraq in 2003.
The case is In Re KBR Inc., Burn Pit Litigation, 09-2083, U.S. District Court for Maryland (Greenbelt).