Inspector General critical of KBR conduct in Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Plant toxic injuries

The Inspector General of the Department of Defense released its long-awaited final report Exposure to Sodium Dichromate at Qarmat Alli Iraq in 2003: Part II Evaluation of Army and Contractor Actions Report No. SPO-2011-009 (September 28, 2011).

Here is the current report: Part II Qarmat Ali FINAL Report Sept 28

And here is a link to a pdf of Part 1, for those interested. The findings confirm much of what the vets in the Qarmat Ali cases have been saying in the their long fight against KBR for exposure injuries from sodium dichormate.

From the summary:

“Contractor recognition of, and response to, the health hazard represented by sodium dichromate contamination, once identified at the Qarmat Ali facility, was delayed. The delay occurred because KBR did not fully comply with occupational safety and health standards required by the contract, and Task Force Restore Iraqi Oil failed to enforce contractor compliance. As a result, a greater number of Service members and DoD civilian employees were exposed to sodium dichromate, and for longer periods, increasing the potential for chronic health effects and future liabilities.”

-DOD IG Qarmat Ali report, p. i.

The DOD IG report explains that KBR first became aware of the sodium dichromate contamination in late May 2003. Our evidence suggests that it was earlier and that KBR knew in April 2003.

The report includes a laundry-list of contract problems and safety violations. KBR did not do what it was supposed to in protecting people at the site. (Report, pp. 12-14). We made similar arguments in court here in Oregon when we briefed and won KBR’s motion to dismiss.

The IG report represents a good day for the sick vets. My view is that the IG acted because the Senate Democratic Policy Committee and Oregon Congressional delegatoin pressed the issue of Qarmat Ali exposures.

The Oregon Congressional delegation provides great leadership on these issues. Senator Wyden, Senator Merkley, Rep. Blumenaur, Rep. Schrader, and Rep. DeFazio have been particularly helpful to Oregon’s Qarmat Ali vets.

As the guy in the trenches, I can say that this day restores some of my lost faith in our government. Members of Congress pushed, and the Inspector General’s office did  their job in a frank and thorough fashion. We are pleased.

Meantime, here is today’s report on the Inspector General’s report from The Oregonian.  While it is a good day, nothing has changed. The vets are still sick, and KBR has still refused to reckon with the harms and the losses. Our fight for the vets continues.

Revised 29 Sept 2011

Western Culinary Institute class action update: Defendants seek another dismissal

This is an update on our culinary school consumer fraud class action against Western Culinary Institute, now known as Le Cordon Bleu Portland, and its parent corporation, Career Education Corporation.

A few weeks ago, defendants filed a motion to compel arbitration of Nathan Surrett and Jennifer Adams’ claims and to stay or dismiss the case.

Some background: Nate is the current class representative. The case is being pursued in his name and through his efforts. Before Nate, Jennifer Adams served as the class representative. She had to step down after the Court narrowed the scope of the class in a way that excluded Jennifer. (If that’s not confusing enough, Adams is Jennifer’s married name. She was previously Jennifer Schuster, which is why that name appears on some of the pleadings.)

Anyhow, back in April, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a really significant anti-consumer decision in the case of AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion. The case is bad for consumers because it strengthens big businesses’ ability to take away consumers’ rights to trial by jury through mandatory arbitration.

So four months after that decision, the lawyers for WCI/Le Cordon Bleu Portland/CEC decided to ask the trial court to dismiss our case because Nate and Jennifer were required to arbitrate their claims. Their motion is long and legally complex. It was filed under seal because it uses student records of the two named plaintiffs. That’s a long way of saying I can’t provide a copy.

While their arguments were complicated, there were a number of glaring problems. We filed our response on Friday. Here is a pdf copy: Response to Def Motion to Compel Arb and Dismiss

Fair warning: it’s a technical brief that may not make much sense if you don’t have a law degree and an interest in this very narrow area. The issues are important for this case and for other consumer cases. I’m posting it here for those following this case and, also, for consumer attorneys out there facing post-AT&T Mobility motions to compel arbitration.

I’m pleased with our opposition. Oral argument is scheduled for Friday, September 23 in front of Judge Baldwin. I don’t know whether Judge Baldwin will rule from the bench. We will update you when we know more.

 

Consumer fraud class action update: Western Culinary Institute, Le Cordon Bleu, Career Education Corp.

Late yesterday, Career Education Corp and Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu Portland filed a motion to compel arbitration in our consumer fraud class action. More on the case here.

Short version is that three years after we filed the case, after the trial court certified a class action, after class notice went out, and after the opt out period ran, the defendants filed a motion to compel arbitration. The motion will require a lot of work from the class legal team, but of course, that is why we are here.

It’s a bit hard to fathom why the Career Education Corp and its school waited so long to file their motion. Their story is that they could not have won their motion until the U.S. Supreme Court decided AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion. For reasons best left to the briefing, they are so very wrong in a number of ways.

In many places in their brief, they make arguments that remind me of this video:

Inconceivable!

I suppose in the end we are talking about delay. But of course that’s a problem that bites them as hard as it bites the class. They are on the hook for prejudgment interest if we prevail. That means that every day of delay is more interest on the amounts at issue. With approximately 2500 in the class, we are talking about a lot of money.

At the tipping point: Have our rights to trial by jury been taken away?

Last night’s HBO premier of Hot Coffee, The Movie provided a great summary of all the ways in which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, large foreign corporations, and political operatives have banded together to end the right to trial by jury. Filmmaker Susan Saladoff did a masterful job of showing how deliberately falsified talking points, loaded memes, anti-consumer legislation, court packing, and forced mandatory arbitration have been used to deprive consumers of their rights to trial by jury.

Things have only gotten worse since production of Hot Coffee. As I have noted previously, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered two pro-business/anti-consumer opinions this term. This one makes consumer class actions even harder to maintain, and this one makes forced mandatory arbitration even harder to avoid. The picture painted by by Susan Saladoff’s brilliant film gets more finely defined by the Supreme Court’s recent term.

At home, I watched Hot Coffee with my beloved, who has been my biggest supporter for all of the years I have struggled to do what is right for consumers in our civil justice system. She also took me to task over language in my recent blog posts–she’s something of a message genius. She points out, correctly, that I must stop using the language and the memes of the corporate shills who seek to corrupt the civil justice system.

Okay my beloved. You win. I will listen to your wise counsel. So no more use of their memes, talking points and phrases.

Instead, let’s focus on what they have done. Through a deliberate campaign hatched by the cynical pro-corporate strategists, our precious right to trial by jury hangs on the edge.

They cannot accept a justice system that grants consumers and ordinary citizens the power to call corporate wrongdoers to account. They cannot allow the rest of us to have access to justice.  By a cold and deliberate strategy, they have simply chosen to nullify the Seventh Amendment, in order to eliminate consumers’ rights to trial by jury.  The question becomes whether we allow this to happen or fight back to protect our rights.

One of my heroes, Erin Brockovich, pointed out long ago that the problem with giving up constitutional rights is that they are gone forever. The right to trial by jury protects us from government abuse and from corporate misconduct. It looks to me like we are in fact tipping back, and consumers are beginning to to understand the importance of these issues. We can only hope.

 

The long fight ahead: Consumer advocates gear up on mandatory arbitration

In their recent decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, the U.S. Supreme Court gave a hearty five thumbs up to anything-goes arbitration clauses. The Court’s opinion means that consumers will trade their 7th Amendment rights to trial by jury for expensive, secret, pro-big business private arbitration. At least some members of Congress are engaged. Sens. Franken and Blumenthal and Rep. Hank Johnson have taken on the task by re-introducing the Arbitration Fairness Act.

Here is what’s at stake. After seven years of work, we favorably settled a multi-million dollar consumer class action against Comcast. My guess is that the case would have failed had it been brought after AT&T Mobility.

Those of us who protect consumers will follow this legislation carefully and work to assist. Meantime, if you’ve been shut out of court by a one-sided arbitration clause, I would love to hear about it. Use the comments or ping me via email.

David

 

I am not dead yet: Oregon Unlawful Trade Practices Act and insurance reform

Kudos to Steve Duin of  The Oregonian for this column on Azusa Suzuki’s struggle to prove that she is entitled to Regence Blue Cross supplemental medicare insurance coverage for medical expenses incurred in a motor vehicle collision.

Apparently Regence decided that Ms. Suzuki was dead and–for that reason–Regence decided it did not need to pay her bills. She worked for years to prove she’s very much alive. It sounds almost comical. But if you watch the linked video or read the article, it’s apparent that outrage is the only response.

The Duin article points up a serious problem in Oregon. Consumers are at the mercy of insurance companies. When they do not pay claims, when they violate Oregon law, and when they do not fairly adjust claims, Oregon consumers are virtually out of luck. The problem is a lack of consumer remedies against insurance companies that misbehave.

Senator Chip Shields is trying to fix that. He has introduced a bill–SB 719–which protect Oregon consumers by making insurance companies meet the bare standards set out in Oregon’s Unlawful Trade Practices Act.

In this session of godawful Salem bills, it’s nice to see the champions of consumers are still fighting for the rest of us.  Appreciation is due–as always–to Sen. Shields. Consumers have few friends in the Oregon legislature. He is one of our best.

Debt trap: for-profit colleges

One of the best articles I’ve seen recently on for-profit colleges. Please, please, please read this if you or anyone in your family is  thinking about a for-profit school.

From the trenches, we continue to pursue our class action against Le Cordon Bleu Portland (formerly known as Western Culinary Institute) and its parent, Career Education Corp. Consumer fraud class actions are difficult cases.

Best to avoid the damage in the first place by saying no to overpriced for-profit colleges.  Don’t let the slick marketing fool you; you’re often better off at a less-costly community college.

One more thing. To our leaders in Congress, your active oversight can fix this problem. But you need to do more than regulate for the future. A generation of students are effectively underwater for life because of lax regulation. Seems to me that you need to fix this problem.

Details emerge on KBR’s request for taxpayer bailuout

In today’s Oregonian, Julie Sullivan (aka “the one-woman wrecking crew”) reports here on emerging details of KBR’s request for a taxpayer bailout.  Short version is that as revealed by depositions taken in our Oregon Army National Guard toxic injury case, Bixby v. KBR, KBR won a special secret contract clause that requires the government to pay in the event of injuries or deaths.

Special thanks to Rep. Earl Blumenauer who pushed the Department of Defense on this issue.  Along with Sen. Wyden, Sen. Merkley and Rep. Schrader, Rep. Blumenauer has made it a point to take a hard look at these issues and provide critical assistance to our vets.  Members of the Oregon Congressional delegation have been fabulous.  Their hard work provides real comfort to the vets who stepped up to serve.

One question that occurs to me is whether that clause is enforceable if the vets in the Bixby case succeed in proving fraud by KBR. I don’t profess any particular expertise in this area. And even if I did, the details remain secret, so it’s likely impossible to know how that plays out.

As a taxpayer and as counsel for the sick vets, I’m steamed.  KBR already got paid billions for their work, and now they want a get-out-of-jail-free card so that they don’t have to pay for any consequences of their actions? Great plan.

Food Safety Legislation S 510–Safety over fear

Good to see that the Senate is set to pass S. 510, a bill that would help regulate food producers. By way of background, we’ve had a lot of outbreaks of food-related disease due to unsafe and unregulated food producers. The problem is exacerbated by the rise of large scale farming. When unregulated and unsafe producers are large scale, the havoc caused by tainted food spreads far and wide.

That’s how we get the salmonella and E. coli outbreaks. A bad peanut processor in Georgia can cause havoc here in Oregon. Food-borne sickness causes 5,000 deaths a year and 300,000 hospitalizations.  That’s a serious safety issue.

To hear opponents talk about it, the passage of amendments to our food safety laws represents a profound danger of government meddling and over-regulation.  On my Facebook page, a family member posted a link to an article arguing that the FDA would soon be outlawing gardeners from saving seeds.  There is nothing in the bill that allows anyone to rationally make that argument. Apart from that, the FDA does not have authority or power to regulate home gardens and purely local food producers who sell in-state.

I understand fears of overreaching by the federal government. I’m hardly an apologist for the government.  And I’m also a longtime organic gardener, farmers market shopper and supporter of local agriculture.  Still, we need to be able to trust our food supply.  Seems to me that we shouldn’t have to worry that the peanut butter we buy at the store might be tainted.  Kids, sick people, and the elderly are at high risk for dangerous food-borne illnesses.  Seems like we should choose safety over fear.

Smoking gun in toxic injury case against KBR and Halliburton

In today’s Oregonian, Julie Sullivan reports here about a document provided to the soldiers in discovery that is one of those classic smoking guns. In our case, Bixby v. KBR, KBR and Halliburton claim that they didn’t know about the sodium dichromate until late July or August, they claim that they told the Army immediately, they claim that they never used sodium dichromate, and they claim that no one was injured from the exposure.

Against those claims, this pdf document,  Team RIO Mtg Min 02 Oct 2003 MCM00739, tells a very different story. The document is a summary of a meeting in Oct 2003 of members of Team RIO (Restore Iraqi Oil). Representatives from KBR, the Army Corp of Engineers (“USACE”) and Iraq’s Southern Oil Company (“SOC”) were discussing the sodium dichromate contamination of the Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Plant.

Qarmat Ali is where our troops provided security to KBR employees as they worked under their secret, no-bid, $7 billion, cost-plus contract to rebuild Iraqi oil production. The document raises a few questions.   No doubt the soldiers’ legal team will be exploring those questions when we get to trial.