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Judge nixes lawsuit against KBR in GI's death

Jul. 16, 2012 - 02:52PM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 16, 2012 - 02:52PM  |  
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PITTSBURGH — A military contractor cannot be held liable in the death of a soldier who was electrocuted in his barracks shower at an Army base in Iraq, a federal judge said in dismissing a lawsuit brought by Pittsburgh-area soldier's mother.

Houston-based military contractor KBR Inc. cannot be held liable in Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth's death because military commanders — not the contractor — decided where to house soldiers and whether buildings with substandard electrical systems were suitable for troops, U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer said.

"As a contractor, KBR had no authority to order military personnel to do anything, including to direct soldiers where to live or shower," Fischer said in the 87-page opinion handed down late Friday. In it, she relied on military records and the sworn testimony of commanders taken in pretrial depositions.

William Stickman, an attorney for Cheryl Maseth, said he'll ask the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Fischer's opinion, which he said was overly broad.

Stickman said the legal standards Fischer used are meant to immunize the military and its contractors from lawsuits should soldiers be harmed during combat-related duties, when normal levels of civil negligence might be impossible to police, but not from what he called "routine building support services."

"To extend immunity to KBR in this case would essentially give them a free pass to engage in any negligence" connected with the housing of soldiers in Iraq, Stickman said.

Attorneys for KBR referred comment to a company spokesman, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

All parties agree that Maseth died in January 2008, when an improperly grounded water pump electrified his shower water. What they don't agree on is whether KBR was legally responsible for the shoddy electrical work that was common in Iraqi-built structures taken over by the U.S. military.

The building in which Maseth died was looted by the locals and left with "no electrical power, electrical components, internal plumbing, doors or windows" before the military decided to renovate it. Local contractors were hired to do that work "to improve U.S.-Iraqi relations and to support the local economy which had been devastated by the war," Fischer found. The Iraqi contractors didn't work up to American building code standards, the judge wrote.

Initially, the building was to house offices and a command post, instead of living quarters, so "making the building safe for living quarters was not considered a priority during the renovations," the judge found.

One general said in his deposition that the Army approved of housing soldiers — including himself — in such substandard buildings because they were still considered safer than more temporary structures that might not withstand artillery fire.

Stickman contends that's not relevant because KBR signed off on work orders to repair specific electrical problems in the building, which should have prevented Maseth's death had the work been done properly.

But Fischer found the Army's contract required KBR to maintain the "existing electrical systems" — substandard though they were — not to improve them.

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