July 31, 2012
Political Question Doctrine Precludes Adjudication of Tort Claims against Government Contractor
On January 2, 2008, Staff Seargant Ryan D. Maseth stepped into a shower in his living quarters at the Radwaniyah Palace Complex (RPC) outside of Baghdad and was killed by electrocution caused by a malfunctioning water pump that was not grounded and faulty electical infrastructure. His estate sued Kellogg, Brown and Root Services, Inc. (KBR), the contractor responsible for maintaining the facilities at RPC. On July 13th, the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania dismissed the lawsuit, Harris v. Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc., finding that the political question doctrine and the combatant activities exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) barred the court from proceeding with the case any further.
The court had previously denied KBR's initial motion to dismiss on the same grounds, but after further discovery and two Circuit Court decisions that relied on the political question doctrine to dismiss torts claims against military contractors, the court reversed itself. While the court had initially assumed that KBR had discretion under its contracts with the military to make decisions about electrical repairs, it is now persuaded that any possible negligece by KBR cannot be divorced from military determinations.
On the political question doctrine, the court summarized its findings as follows:
[F]urther adjudication of this case will require evaluation of the military’s decision to continue to house soldiers in hardstand buildings with hazardous electrical systems even though the military was aware that the buildings lacked grounding and bonding and the military possessed specific knowledge that such electrical deficiencies had resulted in electrocutions to military personnel, causing injuries and even deaths, prior to the events of this case.
In addition, the court concluded that the combatant activities exception to the FTCA also applied and provided a separate grounds for dismissal. Although that exception does not directly address its applicability to government contractors, courts have extended its protections to such contractors. The tough issue was whether or not KBR's activities had a direct relation to combat activities. The court concluded that they did.
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