UK Soldiers and Civilian Contractors To Pursue Iraq Toxic Chemical Cases

Military Contractor KBR Ordered To Pay $85m Damages To 12 American Soldiers

09.11.2012

Expert lawyers from UK firm Irwin Mitchell welcome a landmark ruling in the USA in which co-counsel won a jury award of $85m in damages for 12 US soldiers exposed to harmful chemicals in Iraq and say that the result could now pave the way for affected British soldiers and others to obtain justice.

A Federal Court jury in Portland, Oregon, unanimously found that military contractor KBR, Inc. negligently exposed the soldiers to a carcinogen – the same chemical featured in the Erin Brockovich film - at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant they guarded near Basra, Iraq in 2003 for KBR.

Evidence presented at the trial included KBR documents which noted a “serious health problem” at Qarmat Ali and that “almost 60% of people now exhibit the symptoms” of Sodium Dichromate exposure.

The trial included a video testimony of a Colonel in the Indiana National Guard who died in 2009 of lung cancer linked by the U.S. Government to carcinogenic exposure at the water plant. The jury found that KBR showed “reckless and outrageous indifference” to the health, safety and welfare of the soldiers.

The claims of around 150 further claimants, including 13 British services personnel allegedly exposed to the chemical at Qarmat Ali, are presently awaiting trial in Houston and Portland federal courts, with more claimants likely to join them in taking legal action following this result.

This decision now paves the way for more than 100 British services personnel from the Army, RAF Regiment, Ghurkha Regiment and Civilian contractors to take legal action following their exposure at Qarmat Ali.

The case also sets a legal precedent, which if followed may allow other claims to progress against KBR by other injured services personnel and civilians allegedly injured by fumes from ‘burn pits’ which were used to dispose of waste in Iraq and Afghanistan. The precedent also confirms that other government defence contractors may be subject to full accountability for harm they cause in overseas work.

British law firm Irwin Mitchell is working as co-counsel on the cases with US law firm Doyle Raizner LLP, of Houston, and represents British claimants serving in the RAF.

Clive Garner, Partner and Head of International and Group Action Claims at Irwin Mitchell, said: “The jury in Portland has confirmed what we and our clients believed all along, that servicemen were negligently exposed to a highly dangerous chemical while they were serving their country at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant in Iraq.

“This is a major development in the battle for justice for those affected by events at Qarmat Ali and we will continue to work with our co-counsel in the USA to ensure that others affected by exposure to Sodium Dichromate at Qarmat Ali, including members of the British Armed Forces and civilian contractors will also receive the justice they deserve.”

The successful claimants in the Portland case alleged that KBR misled them about the presence of and risks associated with Sodium Dichromate, an anticorrosive agent used to clean pipes at the water plant which contains a known carcinogen subject to the most severe legal restrictions in the US and elsewhere. The soldiers testified that they have health problems, including respiratory, skin, gastrointestinal, and lung issues because of the toxic exposure.

The jury found that KBR, which was contracted by the US government to restore the plant as part of Task Force Restore Iraqi Oil (RIO), showed “reckless and outrageous indifference” to the health, safety and welfare of the 12 Oregon National Guard soldiers and awarded each of them $850,000 in non-economic damages and $6.25m in punitive damages.

Lead counsel Michael Patrick Doyle, of Doyle Raizner LLP, said, “This verdict is an important step toward obtaining justice for the U.S. and British military personnel who face serious health problems and uncertainty because of KBR’s negligence at Qarmat Ali. This jury gave these war veterans and their families what KBR would not – justice and respect for their service to their nations.”

Andy Tosh, a former RAF sergeant from Lincolnshire who was injured as a result of exposure to the toxins at Qarmat Ali, said: “This landmark verdict is just the tip of the iceberg in exposing KBR, bringing it to justice and in making it accountable for the events at Qarmat Ali in Iraq in 2003 that left me suffering.

“I spent several months on operations protecting Qarmat Ali, alongside my RAF Regiment colleagues and the American National Guardsmen. It astounds me that one of the world’s largest military contractors endangered the troops provided to support its work. Even worse, KBR sought to hide the facts and deny responsibility for its actions that are now having a long-term impact on many of us.

“I'm gravely concerned for my future health and that of the men I was responsible for as none of us know what our long term prognosis may be. What we do know is that exposure to sodium dichromate is potentially fatal and KBR's actions mean that those effected and the families of those that have already sadly passed away will continue to carry the burden and impact for the rest of our lives.

“I now hope justice continues to prevail for all those who like me were affected by KBR's total disregard for our lives whilst serving at Qarmat Ali and that this awful situation is never allowed to happen again.”

Garner added: “The decision in the Qarmat Ali case is groundbreaking and paves the way for other potential claims against KBR which we are investigating. This includes claims against KBR in relation to exposure to toxic fumes which we believe were generated by ‘burn pits’ which were used to dispose of waste from military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We are working with our colleagues in the US to pursue claims against KBR for their management of ‘burn pits’ which it is alleged exposed servicemen and civilians to toxic fumes causing some to develop lung and other cancers, chronic bronchitis and other respiratory problems.

“Litigation regarding the ‘burn pits’ is currently proceeding as in the US state of Maryland with British service personnel and civilian contractors who were exposed expected to join the legal action.”

In addition to being a major contractor for the US Department of Defence (DoD), KBR is also a key supplier of services to the British Ministry of Defence (MoD), including the provision of services for the Royal Air Force’s pilot training facility at RAF Valley in Wales and Army Garrisons at Aldershot and around the Salisbury Plain. KBR is understood to be considering an appeal against the Jury’s decision against them in the Portland court.