Soldier's justice: An appeals court denies immunity to a contractor

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Justice delayed doesn't necessarily mean justice denied.

That's the welcome result from an appellate court ruling last week that said a Houston-based defense contractor isn't immune from legal action in the death of a Pennsylvania soldier just because it was performing work for a branch of the U.S. government.

The decision came in the tragic case of Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, a 24-year-old native of Shaler who was electrocuted in 2008 while showering in an Iraqi base with known electrical problems. This was not some complex, unforeseeable complication of war. This was Electrical Wiring 101.

According to the Defense Department inspector general, Kellogg Brown & Root Services Inc. "did not ground equipment during installation or report improperly grounded equipment identified during routine maintenance" at the facility maintained by KBR.

The company argued that the construction and renovation work was done by Iraqis, not KBR, and that rewiring the building was beyond the scope of its contract. Last year, when U.S. District Court Judge Nora Barry Fischer dismissed a lawsuit filed by Sgt. Maseth's parents, she said she was prevented from passing judgment on military and political decisions under the separation of powers doctrine.

Last week, a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, saying "defense contractors do not have independent constitutional authority and are not coordinated branches of government." The case is now revived and could have implications for others involving defense contractors, but it is far from over.

KBR, which has vigorously defended itself, could appeal. If the matter reverts to Judge Fischer, she'd first have to determine whether the law of Pennsylvania, where the suit was filed, should apply, or whether it belongs in Texas, where KBR is based, or Tennessee, where Sgt. Maseth was based.

Sgt. Maseth signed up to protect and serve his country, no matter the cost. A just decision in this case is the least his country can offer in return -- and now that potential exists.


First Published August 6, 2013 12:00 AM


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