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

Providence data breach case: Oregon Supreme Court argument

I had the pleasure of watching my dear friend and colleague Maureen Leonard argue Paul v. Providence in the Oregon Supreme Court today. She did a fabulous job of articulating our position, both in her briefing and at oral argument.

The Oregon Supreme Court was not at full strength. Justice Durham has been out of town this week but will participate in decision of the case. Justice Kistler apparently recused himself. One of the things that struck me as I listened to argument and the questions from the bench is how lucky we are in Oregon to have the kind of judiciary that we do.

Don’t misunderstand me. We could easily lose this case. Some of the individual questions from the judges were not friendly to us or our theories about why Providence should have to account for breaching confidentiality of 350,000 patients’ medical records. But still, there is a genuine desire in the Supreme Court to get things right and an openness that strikes me as Oregon at its best.

The defense argued strongly. They have the benefit of having won at the trial court and Oregon Court of Appeals. Still, I like how things went today.

It can take the Supreme Court a long time to issue an opinion. All of us who toil in the courts know that how oral argument felt is often not much of a predictor of the outcome. So I don’t put a lot of significance in Maureen’s great day. Still, you have to feel good when it seems like the court understands your position.

All of this is from something of a skewed perspective. I am the guy who lost in both lower courts. My work was the basis of heavy defense criticism in oral argument today. Still, I am convinced that we are right. And of course we will see it through to the end.

 

Ten years after 9/11–what about the debts owed to our veterans?

Ten years after the 9/11 tragedy, I am thinking today of the first responders and veterans who volunteered for service. They did so understanding the dangers and the risks, and they did so as a matter of duty and conscience. In answering the call, they put themselves in harm’s way. It was not just them, of course. Their families have borne heavy costs from their service.

Against this backdrop, I continue to represent the sick veterans of the Oregon Army National Guard 1/162. They provided security at the heavily-contaminated Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Plant in Iraq. KBR was responsible for the facility as part of its secret, no-bid, multi-billion dollar Restore Iraqi Oil contract.

Many of the vets who provided security to KBR contractors at Qarmat Ali are sick. Some vets from other units have perished from cancer. All who served in that toxic facility are rightfully worried about the future.

I am something of a cynic–I suppose that’s part of my job. I usually distrust flag waving because it can distract us from what is important. So let’s commit to do more than wave flags. How about we resolve to take care of our sick and injured veterans and their families? How about we hold accountable those who profited from the war contracts and insist that they take responsibility for what they have wrought?

Debts are owed. It is time to pay.

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.

 

Hot Coffee, frivolous lawsuits and HBO

HBO premiers Hot Coffee, The Movie tonight. The documentary is Oregon attorney Susan Saladoff’s labor of love. Susan put aside her law practice to will this film into being. She is a force of nature.

Susan makes no bones about her point of view. Like me, she is an Oregon consumer-side attorney who represents injured Oregonians in tough cases. I’ve tracked her cases over the years–we’re buddies–and she is the real deal. Susan grew weary of the fog machine’s distortion of the civil justice system. So she set out to make a film to publicize some of the misconceptions of our system.

By all accounts, she had no real experience as a filmmaker. I imagine that many thought her to be a modern-day Quixote riding off to do battle with the menacing windmills. As with any audacious plan, there are many ways to fail. But she is a force, and her improbable work wound up at Sundance with great recognition.

The well-known McDonald’s hot coffee case serves as a starting point for her film. While everyone knows the McDonald’s case, Susan gets the evidence and shows why the jury correctly decided it and how the pro-corporate fog-machine turned it into a cause by totally misrepresenting the facts. After watching some of the early cuts of the film-in-progress, I was awed by how she brought the evidence to life. Once you see this movie, you will never think about the McDonald’s hot coffee case the same way again.

The corporate fog machine’s favorite catch phrase, “frivolous lawsuit,” is at issue here. It’s a bastardized meme, arising from the rules of civil procedure. It used to mean that a case had no legal or factual basis and that the lawyer pursuing the matter did so in bad faith. Now it has come to mean any case in which a consumer seeks justice for wrongs heaped upon them.

Corporate interests took aim at the civil justice system because our civil justice system provided the only means through which consumers and members of the middle class could hold wrongdoers accountable. In doing so, the frivolous lawsuit meme has nullified the Seventh Amendment right to trial by jury. The film is part of a growing movement to restore the Seventh Amendment and consumers’ access to the civil justice system.

I am planning to watch it tonight and planning to record it as well. Susan is a jewel for her commitment and her achievement. All of us who work in the trenches of the civil justice system are indebted to her.

Our own worst enemies-lawyer ads, solicitation letters and internet marketing

Via Twitter, the law blog world and a few local lists, I’ve spent the better part of a week thinking about lawyer advertising. First thing: I am biased. I believe that the law is a profession.  As such, our clients come first, the justice system next, and we come third.

The U.S. Supreme Court long ago said that truthful lawyer advertising is subject to First Amendment protection. There is good reason for that rule. But–and this may seem like heresy–too many believe that the inquiry ends there. The rights secured by the First Amendment are critically important. But so are the 5th amendment rights of equal protection, the 6th amendment rights of the accused, the 7th amendment right to trial by jury, and the 14th amendment right to a fair trial.

The problem is not advertising, but the content and methods that lawyers use to reach prospective clients. A recent discussion with a nameless younger lawyer highlights the problem. He proudly sends accident solicitation letters to Oregon drivers who have been in motor vehicle collisions. He defends the process by saying that he provides important information to consumers, that insurance companies will take advantage of unsophisticated consumers, and that he is sticking it to the man.

The same young attorney trumpets on his website his aggressive and hands-on approach to handling motor vehicle collisions. The same young attorney recently posted on a local list a question about motor vehicle collisions that revealed a stunning lack of mastery of the subject matter area.

In discussions about lawyer advertising, the one thing that lawyer advertising advocates invariably mention is that they have to make a living, too. Sometimes they add that we who criticize are really just trying to squelch competition because we got ours.

Whatever success I’ve had in building a law practice has come through years of hard work. It took me nearly a decade to attain basic mastery in the practice of law. I am in my 25th year of practice now. My particular areas of practice are such that some years I earn a lot of money, and some years I do not. There are simply no guarantees of fabulous income.

So there are a few things nagging at me here. The problem is the advertising lawyer who resort to ads that make you and me wince do not recognize any obligation to the justice system.

Here are some not-very-far-fetched examples. How about screaming, boosted volume TV ads: CALL 1-800 LETS SUE!!! Or how about the snake-oil peddlers who sell internet marketing for lawyers and then spam the firm web page across the internet. Or there’s the unsolicited letter mailed or emailed to people who have been in motor vehicle accidents about how “I can help you and/or your loved ones in this time of need” for a mere third of the recovery.

Don’t get me wrong. I see fabulous web pages out there. I know attorneys who provide great information about their practices and their areas of law by use of advertising. I see some of my colleagues’ use of media and think that they are doing great work. But none of them are racing to the bottom through the bad ads.

Invariably, those who are running in the race to the bottom use one or all of the following excuses: 1. “Everyone is doing it.” 2. “It’s perfectly legal.” 3. “I’m just trying to make a living.” The problem is that each one of these “legal” marketing approaches cheapens the justice system.

Trial lawyers wonder why the public holds them in low regard. Part of the answer comes from the work of very powerful and wealthy interests dedicated to making sure that consumers surrender their rights to trial by jury. If you’ve heard the phrases, “frivolous lawsuit,” or “lawsuit lottery,” you’ve been exposed to their handiwork.

And we who dare to represent consumers know this. We know it in our bones. Still the advertisers are so intent on getting theirs that they simply do not care. Because that’s what it’s about at the bottom: Getting theirs. So the mass marketers run ads to collect cases that they will never try and in doing so give the Cato Institute and various anti-consumer forces great material for their campaigns to lock consumers from our courthouses.

For those of us dedicated to the proposition that this is a profession, every bad, screaming ad, every invasive solicitation letter, every SEO spam comment is another nick in a badly damaged system of justice. Even so, those of us who dare to demand higher standards will not go quietly into the night.

 

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.

KBR update: Halliburton joined in Bixby v. KBR

Yesterday, we filed an updated complaint in Bixby v. KBR. Here’s a copy Bixby Fourth amended complaint. The new complaint adds Halliburton defendants.

For those interested, here’s what happened. The legal team representing the sick veterans made Freedom of Information Act requests to the U.S. Army. It took a long time to get the requested documents, but we did. Once we reviewed them, we learned that Halliburton had been at the site pumping water at Qarmat Ali.

Additional documents produced at the same time suggest that Halliburton and KBR were actually bringing sodium dichromate to Qarmat Ali and using it for water pumping. That would be a big additional problem for them.

There is much more to the update, but I wanted to post this for those who are interested.