Wrongful-death lawsuit in Shaler soldier's electrocution dismissed

| Monday, July 16, 2012, 10:16 a.m.

The mother of a Shaler soldier electrocuted in Iraq said Monday she was “completely disappointed” and will appeal a federal judge's decision to dismiss the wrongful death lawsuit against the company she claims is responsible.

Cheryl Harris of Cranberry said the case involving her son, Ryan Maseth, didn't end when U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer on Friday dismissed the lawsuit against KBR Inc., a Houston-based engineering and construction company that contracted to maintain Army barracks in Iraq.

“We won't quit until there is nothing left to appeal,” Harris said. “I was told that if I wanted justice, it would have to be in a courtroom. We expected that justice would prevail, but (the judge's dismissal) left me surprised and disappointed.”

KBR spokesman John Elolf did not respond to requests for comment.

Harris and Douglas Maseth of Allison Park claim in the civil lawsuit that KBR's negligence led to the death of their son, Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, 24, on Jan. 2, 2008, while he was showering at the Radwaniyah Palace Complex, one of Saddam Hussein's palaces that was serving as a base for U.S. forces in Iraq.

They claim in the lawsuit that KBR's shoddy electrical work on a water pump caused their son's electrocution.

In court filings, KBR contends that although it had the maintenance contract for the building, the Army decided not to make the building electrically safe.

Army officials did not return calls.

The case drew international attention during several investigations as the military inspected equipment in its bases and Congress called for reviews of work by contractors.

Fischer said she couldn't rule on whether KBR caused Maseth's death without ruling on the Army's decision to house him and other soldiers in a barracks with a substandard electrical system. The courts don't have jurisdiction to second-guess the Pentagon on the acceptable level of risk for soldiers in a combat area, she said.

“The judgments of these officials on such sensitive military and legislative policy issues cannot be evaluated in a court of law without violating the doctrine of separation of powers,” the judge wrote.

In March 2009, Fischer rejected a motion to dismiss the case because of a similar argument.

A few months later, the Pentagon released a report that said improper grounding or faulty equipment were to blame for nine of 18 electrocution deaths reported in Iraq, including Maseth's. The report concluded that “multiple systems and organizations failed,” leaving Maseth “exposed to unacceptable risk.”

KBR was not implicated in the eight other electrocutions.

Harris said she filed the lawsuit in March 2008 to get answers about her son's death, “but it never was just about Ryan.

“It was about the safety of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was about a contractor being paid to do work. It was about providing basic safety for our troops.

“It was about justice,” she said, adding that she doesn't feel justice was done.

Bill Stickman, one of the attorneys representing Maseth's parents, said he will file his appeal to 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals within 30 days.

“We're all disappointed, but we don't feel defeated at this point. We think we have strong issues, and we're confident of our chances before the circuit and getting Ryan his day in court,” he said.

Staff writer Brian Bowling contributed to this report. Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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