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Iraq Transition

Family's lawsuit over slain contractors stalls

By Joe Sterling
CNN

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(CNN) -- More than a year after four U.S. civilian workers were killed in Iraq, a lawsuit against the workers' employer is pending as the company and the plaintiffs contest which court should hear the case.

Claiming fraud and wrongful death, the lawsuit against Blackwater Security Consulting, Blackwater Lodge and Training Center by the workers' relatives stems from the March 31, 2004, attack against U.S. civilians by insurgents in Falluja. The suit accuses the company of compromising the safety of its employees for the sake of profit.

Blackwater has filed a motion to dismiss the case, providing copies of contracts signed by the four saying they would assume any risks from working under "volatile, hostile and extremely dangerous circumstances."

The suit was filed in January and now is pending in U.S. District Court in New Bern, North Carolina. Blackwater's "principal place of business" is Moyock, North Carolina, according to court papers.

The case was originally filed in Wake County Superior Court in Raleigh, North Carolina, and was later moved to federal court. The estates of the four security contractors, however, want the case to be heard in Wake County Superior Court, saying a local court is a more appropriate venue for the case.

The March 31, 2004, attack in Falluja produced a grisly image of violence in the Sunni heartland.

The four contractors were escorting a convoy in Falluja when they became lost, drove through the center of the city and stopped in traffic. A grenade attack claimed the lives of the four contractors.

In describing the attack, the lawsuit stated, "several armed Iraqi insurgents walked up behind these two unarmored vehicles and repeatedly shot these four Americans at point blank range, dragged them from their vehicles, beat, burned and desecrated them and desecrated their remains."

Describing an image that was captured in chilling news footage at the time, the lawsuit stated "two of them were strung up on a bridge over the Euphrates River."

After the killings, U.S. forces launched an offensive in Falluja, but that effort failed to oust the insurgent presence in the Sunni Arab city west of Baghdad.

Last November U.S. and Iraqi forces staged a massive invasion of the city and retook Falluja block-by-block in fierce fighting. Today, U.S.-led forces continue to mop up the resistance in the vast Anbar province and hunt down insurgents who were thought to have fled to other regions.

Families allege company security lapses

The families are seeking a jury trial, "compensatory damages in excess of $10,000" for each of the men, punitive damages "in the discretion of the jury," and the rescinding of "each and every independent contractor service agreement" the men had with Blackwater.

In the lawsuit, the families accuse Blackwater of:

  • Failing to adequately gather intelligence for the travel route, conduct a pre-route inspection and failed to supply the contractors with maps of the area;
  • Not adequately staffing the security detail teams for the contractors;
  • Not arming the convoy with proper weapons;
  • Failing to provide armored vehicles for the contractors;
  • Not sending the civilians workers to the Middle East with enough time before the mission to familiarize themselves with the region;
  • And, failing to give at least 24-hour notice of the security mission.
  • "The fact that these four Americans found themselves located in the high-risk, war-torn city of Falluja without armored vehicles, automatic weapons and fewer than the minimum number of team members was no accident," the lawsuit states.

    "Instead, this team was sent out without the required equipment and personnel by those in charge of Blackwater," the lawsuit said, adding that the four contractors would be alive if Blackwater provided them with certain safeguards it promised in contracts they signed.

    Blackwater points to contracts, regulations

    In its motion to dismiss, Blackwater argues that the contracts the workers signed with the company bars claims such as the lawsuit filed by the families.

    Blackwater, in its memorandum, adds signed contracts, which includes releases and waivers. It indicates that the contractors in question knew the perils they could face during the course of their duties.

    Additionally, the company said the claims of the men's families "are pre-empted by the Defense Base Act ... which provides a comprehensive scheme of compensation and the exclusive remedy" for the claims."

    The company emphasizes that the act "provides the exclusive remedy for injuries incurred supporting military operations in a war zone."

    "In addition, the plain language of decedents' contracts with Blackwater bars the claims raised by plaintiff. Finally, plaintiff has not pled fraudulent inducement of contract with sufficient particularity."

    Blackwater, in its memorandum, adds signed contracts, which includes releases and waivers.

    It indicates that the contractors in question knew the perils they could face during the course of their duties.

    The filing against Blackwater is not the only suit filed by survivors of private contractors in Iraq.

    On March 29, the daughter of a civilian driver killed in April of 2004 filed a fraud and wrongful death lawsuit against Haliburton Corp. and its subsidiary, KBR, in U.S. district court in Santa Ana, California.

    Security contractors have been a major bulwark in the U.S.-led war effort.

    The four are among at least 11 Blackwater security contractors who have died in Iraq. And, according to Brookings Institution statistics, as of December 31, 232 American civilian and security contractors have been killed in Iraq.


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