Reflections: What is at stake in our Oregon vets’ claims against KBR

Today’s Oregonian includes this thoughtful editorial about what is at stake in our on-going case against KBR for Oregon National Guard Soldiers. I have to agree with the editorial board that what is at issue is more than whether and how KBR will be required to repair the damage done.  In the case, we can only recover money. That money can only be used to fix what can be fixed,  to help where money can provide help, and to make up for all the losses that cannot be fixed or solved with help.

Still the case is wider and deeper and raises questions about war and contracting and profits.

The latest round of revelations indicate that the government agreed to indemnify KBR for financial losses it might incur as a result of its misconduct in performing work under the Project RIO contract.  If that sounds like gobbledygook, maybe it’s easier to explain this way. In addition to the multi-billion dollar payday, KBR wanted and got a taxpayer bailout for whatever harms might be caused by its misconduct.

The legal team representing the soldiers focuses on their needs. We have a court room and a trial. We are traveling around the world to find evidence and get our witnesses. We are digging through tens of thousands of pages of documents. We hold the line and fight KBR when it seeks immunity or special treatment.  At trial we will put on the evidence, make our arguments and then leave it to the jury to deliberate and decide.

Meanwhile, it is good that Oregonians are asking these questions. Better still, our journalists and thinkers and our Congressional delegation have their teeth into their respective parts of this tragedy. That is good as well, as no one wants our vets to go quietly into the night.

Addendum (2 Sept 2010): Here is a video report on KGW8 News that ran yesterday. Nice to see that Rep. Blumenauer is on this.  For those who say Congress does nothing, you better believe that the Oregon vets appreciate the efforts made by Sen. Wyden, Sen. Merkley, Rep. Blumenauer, and Rep. Schrader.

US Army refuses to disclose KBR indemnification agreement to Rep. Blumenauer

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D. Or.) has done his part to get to the bottom of the sad story of Oregon National Guard soldiers exposed to toxic chemicals at the KBR Qarmat Ali facility. Rep. Blumenauer previously asked the Secretary of Defense to provide information about the agreements–both for KBR and other contractors.

In today’s Oregonian, Julie Sullivan reports here that the Army has refused to produce the information because it remains confidential. The response from the Army is a bit perplexing. The Project RIO contract, which was declassified, contains an indemnification provision. So I can’t help but wonder what is classified. Maybe there are other documents the Army is withholding?

It’s all a bit curious.

The soldiers appreciate Rep.  Blumenauer’s efforts. He is helping to get to the bottom of things.  He’s raising important questions about government contracts, and contractors and oversight.

For my part, I remain focused on KBR.  That’s my job.  Lots of work ahead to prepare for trial. But we’re on it.

Judge Papak denies KBR’s Motions to Dismiss-Again

In a ground-breaking opinion issued hours ago, Magistrate Judge Paul Papak denied KBR’s motions to dismiss in Bixby v. KBR. I’ve attached a pdf copy of the opinion here: 89 – Opinion and Order

For law geeks: It’s a detailed opinion addressing subject matter jurisdiction that touches on political question doctrine, derivative sovereign immunity, and combat activities under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

I am pleased. So are our vets who I represent. It’s a good day. But there is still far to go.

Onward.

Another day in the KBR litigation

Yesterday, Mike Doyle and I appeared in U.S. District Court here in Oregon to argue against dismissal of 26 Oregon National Guard soldiers’ toxic exposure claims against Kellogg Brown and Root.

Judge Papak heard oral argument for close to an hour and half. As always, he was well prepared with tough questions for both sides. Oral argument in his courtroom isn’t so much about arguing the motions as answering his questions.  He really knows how to push and challenge both sides. I have to say that I welcome the challenge of stepping into his courtroom.

KBR claims that it is entitled to a dismissal because: 1) The political question doctrine prevents the court from reviewing the actions of the contractor; 2) KBR, as a government contractor, is immune from claims due to derivative sovereign immunity; and 3) KBR is immune because of the combatant activities exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act.

The soldiers made extensive arguments on all three motions. To prepare the briefs, we reviewed approximately 50,000 pages of documents and took depositions of Army and KBR witnesses in Houston, Dallas and St. Louis. The briefing is voluminous. The issues are complicated. But it seems to come down to KBR claiming that even though it was paid $7 billion on a secret, no bid, cost plus contract, its conduct falls outside the review of our justice system.

We’re waiting for Judge Papak’s ruling on these motions.  The case is on hold until he issues his decision.

Calling out Oregon lawyers by name

Yes, I’m going to name names here. That’s how we do things. But before I start throwing the dirt, I want to be clear about what they’ve done.

Last week, a case I’ve been working on–Bixby v. KBR–got a lot of press. This is the Oregon National Guard soldiers’ toxic exposure injury case against KBR, Inc. (New motto: “We’re no longer Halliburton.”) [Brief note to KBR/Halliburton: That was a joke. -ed.]

Anyhow, I received a number of comments from friends and colleagues. Invariably, some included gentle ribbing about the picture of the middle-aged attorney who seems way more serious and sober than usual. Some included the kind of “Attaboy” comments from colleagues with whom I’ve shared foxholes.

Those are good. But there were a few that were better.

Over the course of the years, I’ve been up against talented and tough opposing counsel in all manner of cases. Two former (and future) adversaries took time to send notes and emails lauding my efforts and wishing me well on these cases. And these are the two Oregon lawyers who I want to call out by name.

Carol Bernick, Partner-in-Charge at Davis Wright Tremaine, and W.A. Jerry North, a shareholder at Schwabe Williamson Wyatt, have both been opposite me in hard-fought cases.  We’ve each had our wins and our losses in big cases.

Each of them wrote notes about the Oregon National Guard cases. The recognition is nice, but what’s better is what it says about the legal profession in Oregon. Both are top-notch opponents. Neither gives an inch in their cases. Still, they can recognize the work of a colleague.

This is why I treasure practicing law in Oregon.  Despite our differences and our courtroom fights, we still have the sense and wisdom to recognize the good works of our colleagues and opponents. When I talk to colleagues in other states, they can’t believe that we generally get along with opposing counsel, work toward stipulations on things on which we can agree, and then bring it full force to fight when we cannot agree. Our clients are well-served by all of this, and we who fight for a living gain a measure of comfort by knowing that the places and times we battle are simply what we do.

So Jerry and Carol show by quiet act what professionalism means to Oregon attorneys. I am deeply appreciative of their kind private messages. But more, it speaks to a vision of how Oregon attorneys carry themselves.  Thank you, friends, for your grace.

Update: Bixby v. KBR-today’s story

Mike Doyle and I were in court this morning fighting off more KBR motions. The KBR defendants asked Judge Papak to prohibit us from taking discovery because–according to KBR–their motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction required no discovery. They also asked Judge Papak to prohibit discovery until the soldiers proved their levels of exposure–a so-called “Lone Pine” order. Judge Papak ruled that we can get our discovery to respond to the next KBR motion to dismiss. He is allowing us full discovery from U.S. Army witnesses–subject, of course, to Army regulations. He denied the KBR motion for an order requiring us to prove the cause and existence of soldiers’ injuries before we could get discovery.  It’s a win for the Oregon soldiers.

Also from today, here’s a link to a story in today’s Oregonian. I think I can speak for all the soldiers when I express my admiration for The Oregonian‘s  Julie Sullivan.  Her tenacity in refusing to let this story die inspires me. Telling their story is a powerful thing.

Our next hearing is scheduled for July 12 at 10:00 a.m.  At that time, Judge Papak will hear KBR’s next motion to dismiss. Meantime, we’ll be doing discovery and filing our opposition.

My good friend and frequent collaborator, Oregon trial lawyer extraordinaire Robert Neuberger, tells me that every big case needs a theme song. I’ve got ours for this case, courtesy of Tom Petty:  “Stand My Ground.”

KBR’s next motion to dismiss-subject matter jurisdiction

Late Friday, KBR filed its next motion to dismiss in Bixby v. KBR, Inc., 3:09 cv 00632-PK (D. Or.). Now the KBR defendants argue that the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. KBR raises the political question doctrine, sovereign immunity and the Federal Tort Claims Act, and combatant activities doctrine. I’m especially tickled by the political question doctrine, as it cites Marbury v. Madison and Baker v. Carr.

For those whose geekiness knows no bounds, here is a pdf version of the memorandum: 46-1 KBR memo in support of motion to dismiss subj matter jur

No one said this case would be easy. (No one was right.)

My dear friend and frequent collaborator Robert Neuberger tells me that a really good case demands a theme song. I’m sure it’s pure happenstance, but I’ve already settled on a theme song for this case.  In the words of Tom Petty, “I won’t back down.”

I Won’t Back Down

Ruling allows Oregon National Guard toxic exposure case against KBR to go forward

This is an update on our case, Bixby v. KBR, U.S. District Court Case No. CV 09-632-PK  (D. Or.).  In the case, soldiers serving in the Oregon National Guard claim that KBR defendants  are responsible for their exposures to hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing toxic chemical. The soldiers claim that KBR knew or should have known that the Qarmat Ali site was contaminated. They claim that KBR officials knowingly sent the soldiers into harm’s way when KBR repeatedly requested security at the site.

The KBR defendants moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the Oregon court lacked jurisdiction over them.  Today, Judge Papak denied the motions. For those interested, I’ve uploaded (pdf) his opinion: 44 – Opinion and Order re def’s motion to dismiss. It’s fairly technical. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re interested in the nuances of personal jurisdiction.

Judge Papak did not pass on the merits of the case. That is for the jury. Rather, he simply decided that the Oregon soldiers will have their day in court in Oregon. Judge Papak ruled based upon case law (precedent) from the Ninth Circuit setting out and applying the effects test.

It’s a particularly important ruling because there was a major risk that if he dismissed the case, no court would have the authority to hear the case against all of the defendants.  I am pleased with the ruling, though of course there is far to go.

U.S. sues KBR, Inc. over its Iraq billings

I haven’t seen the complaint yet, but multiple media reports indicate that the U.S. Department of Justice filed a False Claims Act case against KBR, Inc. and its subcontractors over allegedly improper bills for security in Iraq. Here is the CNN report.

I’m taken by this KBR quote reprinted from the linked article:

“The government fails to acknowledge that the Army breached the contract by repeatedly failing to provide the necessary force protection and, in fact, frequently left KBR, its employees and its subcontractors unprotected,” KBR said.

As one of the lawyers representing Oregon National Guard soldiers who claim to have suffered toxic exposure injuries while protecting KBR employees in Iraq, I have a point of view. Regardless, I’m guessing that National Guard soldiers who provided security to KBR employees at Qarmat Ali site in Iraq might have a slightly different view.  Or perhaps KBR is forgetting about the soldiers that provided security at the Qarmat Ali site?

Fair to say I’ll be interested in how this one turns out.