Court Says Military Contractors Not Entitled to Automatic Sovereign Immunity

By | March 7, 2014

KBR Inc. and Halliburton Co. are not automatically immune from claims by military service members suing over health damage from the contractors’ burn pits, a federal appeals court ruled, reversing a lower court.

KBR is entitled to immunity “only if it adhered to the terms of its contract with the government,” something the district court didn’t sufficiently explore, Circuit Judge Henry Floyd wrote for a three-judge panel in Richmond, Virginia.

“We also lack evidence regarding whether the military permitted or required KBR to deviate from the contract’s terms under certain circumstance,” Floyd wrote.

The district court “erred in finding that KBR was entitled to derivative sovereign immunity at this time,” according to the panel, which sent the case back to the lower court for further consideration.

The case consolidates dozens of lawsuits alleging harm from exposure to contractors’ burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan used to dispose of material including medical waste, paint and pesticide.

A phone message left at Houston-based KBR’s media line seeking comment on the ruling wasn’t immediately returned. Houston-based Halliburton’s media office didn’t immediately return an e-mail seeking comment.

Susan Burke, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said her clients look forward to a deeper look at KBR’s activity.

“We’re confident that further discover will show that KBR acted outside the control of the military,” Burke said in a telephone interview.

The case is In re KBR Inc. Burn Pit Litigation, 13-1430, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (Richmond).

–Editors: Andrew Dunn, Stephen Farr

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