Attorneys for Houston-based military contractor KBR Inc. have asked a federal judge in Pittsburgh to apply Iraqi law to a lawsuit filed by the mother of a Pittsburgh-area soldier who was electrocuted while showering at a U.S. military base in Iraq.
U.S. District Judge Nora Berry Fischer asked attorneys for both sides to file written arguments before she'll decide the issue.
At a hearing Tuesday, she frankly acknowledged what she believed was the reason for the motion. "The big nut is whether or not you can apply for punitive damages," the judge said. "You can't get punitives in Iraq."
The lawsuit contends KBR is responsible for Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth's death because it maintained the barracks where the Army determined a water pump shorted out and electrified his shower water in January 2008.
KBR attorneys have argued that three military investigations have determined no one agency or company is to blame for the Maseth's death, which spawned a military review of 17 other electrocution deaths in Iraq and prompted electrical repair work at military facilities, much of it by KBR.
Cheryl Harris, the mother of the 24-year-old Green Beret, and her attorney said they believe KBR is trying to delay the lawsuit and evade responsibility.
"My emotional response is just the frustration of being here for three years, of the length of time it takes, and the stalling tactics that KBR continues to take," she said at the hearing.
She said American soldiers deserve to be protected by American laws and safety standards, even in foreign lands.
"It's quite sad that KBR would think otherwise," she said. "That they would be paid billions of dollars and not be expected to protect U.S. soldiers."
KBR, a Halliburton spin-off, has been the military's largest support contractor in Iraq, providing everything from mail service to meals to housing for troops.
Daniel Russell, a KBR attorney, argued during the hearing that federal courts generally apply local laws to settle claims involving accidental deaths.
"It was not random that this accident took place in Iraq," Russell said. He said the building in which Maseth died, though part of a U.S. military base, was owned by the Iraqi government.
William Stickman, one of the attorneys for Maseth's parents, said claiming the building was anything other than a U.S. facility was ludicrous.
"An Iraqi family out for a drive had no right to drive onto that base," Stickman said, adding that military contracts with KBR specify adherence to federal safety rules and U.S. electrical codes.
Russell argued that's irrelevant because the case is about an accidental death, not a contract dispute.
Fischer must decide whether to apply Iraqi law to the case or to judge it based on laws in Pennsylvania; Tennessee, where Maseth's unit was based; or Texas, where KBR is headquartered.
Fischer is expected to rule within about two months.