Appeals court: Judge must revisit case over negligence in Iraq death of Pittsburgh-area parents' son

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A federal appeals court today told a judge to revisit the dismissal of Pittsburgh-area parents' lawsuit against a defense contractor accused of negligence in their son's 2008 death in Iraq.

Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth was stationed at the Radwaniyah Palace Complex in a barracks with known electrical problems that was maintained by Texas-based Kellogg Brown & Root Services.

An underground water pump electrocuted him.

Last year U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer found, among other things, that the court could not decide whether KBR was negligent because it would require the passage of judgment on military and political decisions and violate separation of powers.

"Defense contractors do not have independent constitutional authority and are not coordinate branches of government to which we owe deference," three judges of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in a 55-page precedential opinion.

They added that the accusations made by Maseth's parents don't require an evaluation of the military's decisions.

They also found that Judge Fischer must decide a contested legal point in the case -- whether the laws of Pennsylvania, Tennessee or Texas apply -- before deciding whether KBR's defenses would prevail.

Maseth's parents live in the Pittsburgh area, while he lived in Tennessee and KBR is based in Texas.

"If Pennsylvania law applies, then this case lacks any nonjusticiable issues and may proceed," the judges wrote.

The case might be dismissed or go forward with a reduced damages claim if Tennessee or Texas laws apply, they continued.

The case now returns to Judge Fischer.

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Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 and on Twitter @richelord.


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