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Federal judge ponders unusual appeal in Oregon vets’ suit against KBR

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Julie Sullivan, The Oregonian Julie Sullivan, The Oregonian

A lawsuit by Oregon veterans against the civilian contractors they protected in Iraq will move forward — even as it moves closer to an appeal.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Magistrate Paul Papak told attorneys to prepare for trial, even as he considers whether the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals should review his rulings so far.

Attorneys for Kellogg, Brown and Root seek an unusual appeal of Papak’s early decisions. They claim that suing a battlefield contractor for the U.S. military raises “unprecedented” legal questions that should be decided by the higher court first. Other federal judges have ruled in KBR’s favor in suits in Indiana and West Virginia, saying their courts lack jurisdiction.

The Oregon judge twice has rejected those arguments.

If the 9th agrees to hear the case, the process could delay a trial for years — or end the case outright.

Oregon Army National Guard vets sued KBR last year, claiming the company downplayed or disregarded hexavalent chromium at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant. The soldiers say they were sickened by their exposure to the cancer-causing chemical.

Attorneys for the Oregon vets — about 34 are expected to be on the final case — say KBR is stalling.

“We just want to get these guys in court,” David Sugerman, of Portland, told the judge.

KBR attorney Jeffrey Eden, of Portland argued that “If we are correct and we end up in 24 months with a jury verdict and the 9th Circuit agrees with us, we have just wasted two years and countless resources.”

Veterans in West Virginia and Indian refiled in Texas federal court and are scheduled for a May 2012 trial.

Papak said he will decide on the appeal shortly. But, he said the case should move forward in the meantime, and set deadlines for depositions and other evidence gathering.

Oregon has led the nation in its reaction to the exposure. Oregon lawmakers lobbied the Department of Veteran Affairs, which establish a Qarmat Ali registry. They also filed the strongest bill yet to boost congressional oversight of defense contracts, revoke immunity for harm caused by a contractor’s misconduct and limit immunity in future agreements.

– Julie Sullivan

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