Court revives suit against contractor over W.Pa. soldier's death in Iraq
Federal courts don't owe defense contractors the same deference they owe the Department of Defense when it comes to military matters, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.
The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel was welcome news to Cheryl Harris of Cranberry. She and Douglas Maseth of Allison Park sued KBR Inc. of Houston five years ago over the 2008 electrocution of their son, Ryan Maseth, in an Army barracks in Iraq.
“I am extremely thankful and relieved the 3rd Circuit made the decision they did,” she said. “I am looking forward to the fact that the case is finally headed to trial. I am hoping, after all these years, for justice for Ryan.”
Neither the lead attorney for KBR in the case nor a company representative could be reached for comment.
Sgt. Ryan Maseth, 24, died while taking a shower at the Radwaniyah Palace Complex in Iraq. U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer in July 2012 dismissed the lawsuit, deciding that she couldn't rule on whether KBR caused Maseth's death without evaluating the “political question” of the Army's decision to house him and other troops in a building with shoddy electrical wiring.
The 3rd Circuit opinion written by Judge D. Brooks Smith says that defense contractors' actions, even in combat areas, “rarely, if ever, directly implicate a political question.”
The exception would be if the contractor's conduct resulted directly from a military order.
If the military simply provides guidelines and gives the contractor discretion in meeting those goals, then the contractor is liable, the judge said.
“In this case, the contracts between the military and KBR fit within the latter category. They provide KBR with significant discretion over how to complete authorized work orders,” Smith said.
The 3rd Circuit sent the case back to Fischer. One of the first questions the judge has to take up is whether the case will be tried under Pennsylvania, Texas or Tennessee liability laws.
Maseth's parents live in Pennsylvania, he lived in Tennessee before he deployed, and KBR is based in Texas.
The way Texas and Tennessee assign liability would force a judge or jury to become armchair generals second-guessing the military, so most of the parents' claims would have to be thrown out, Smith said.
Pennsylvania liability laws don't have that issue.
Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling @tribweb.com.
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