By Stephen Eisenhammer
LONDON (Reuters) - Relatives of British troops killed in the war in Iraq will be able to sue the government for negligence and pursue damages if they can prove factors such as inadequate equipment led to the soldiers' deaths, an appeal court ruled on Friday.
The court said the British Ministry of Defense (MoD) had a duty of care towards its employees, including soldiers on the battlefield, and had to provide them with the right equipment.
It dismissed the ministry's so-called "combat immunity" argument that the MoD could not be held responsible for the decisions of commanders in the heat of battle.
One hundred and seventy-nine British troops lost their lives in Iraq during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the six years in which they were stationed there afterwards.
Many of the early casualties were inflicted on troops travelling in lightly armored Snatch Land Rover vehicles developed for combating rioters in Northern Ireland, but ineffective against insurgent roadside bombs in Iraq.
The court said the relatives of four soldiers killed between 2003 and 2007 could now pursue claims against the MoD on grounds of negligence.
"My clients are very pleased with the verdict," Shubhaa Srinivasan, a lawyer representing one of the families, told Reuters. "It's good to know that the Court of Appeal accepted our position that the MoD owes a duty of care to provide safe equipment to soldiers when they go to war."
"Today's ruling is really not about second guessing the soldiers and decisions they make on the ground in the heat of battle," she said. "It's all about whether you're properly equipping troops to do what they're meant to do on the battlefield," she said.
But in upholding a June 2011 High Court ruling, the Appeals Court also said relatives of two soldiers could not claim for compensation on the grounds that their human rights had been violated.
Susan Smith, the mother of Phillip Hewett who was killed in Iraq in July 2005, said she was angered by the decision to prohibit claims to be brought on human rights grounds.
"Why is it that the UK is always ramming down your throat about everybody else's human rights but their own soldiers have got none?" she told the BBC. "The battle is something I've got to do to feel that Phillip's loss was worth something."
(Reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer; Editing by Maria Golovnina and Jon Hemming)