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Home» KBR Lawsuits » Jurors say it didn’t take long to determine KBR was negligent

Jurors say it didn’t take long to determine KBR was negligent

Monday, November 05, 2012, 2:40 PM Mike Francis, The Oregonian

KBR Inc. knew a hazardous chemical was present at an Iraqi water treatment plant even before arriving there, said one of the jurors who on Friday awarded $85 million in damages to 12 Oregon soldiers. But the defense contractor allowed soldiers and employees to work there for months before dealing with the contamination, he said.

“It is such a strong case of negligence,” said Jim Zarr, a City of Portland building inspector. KBR officials knew about it, but said nothing to the soldiers who were protecting them at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant, he said. “All they had to do was talk to them.”

Zarr, one of two jurors to speak with The Oregonian after the verdict, said he found the Material Safety Data Sheet for sodium dichromate to be the single most significant document in the trial. He and the other jurors saw that KBR had referenced it as early as November 2002 — four months before the contractors first reached Qarmat Ali, soon after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But work at the plant wasn’t shut down until late in the summer, after the Oregon soldiers and many other troops and contractors had spent time at the site.

The MSDS is a standardized information sheet for materials in use at construction sites and other projects. The one for sodium dichromate starts like this:

“Very hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant, sensitizer), of eye contact (irritant), of ingestion. Hazardous in case of skin contact (corrosive, permeator), of eye contact (corrosive), of inhalation (lung irritant). Prolonged exposure may result in skin burns and ulcerations. Over-exposure by inhalation may cause respiratory irritation. Severe over-exposure can result in death.”

KBR, said Zarr, shouldn’t have “let these guys wallow in it for three months.”

The jurors who spoke about their deliberations said KBR wasn’t the only party at fault.

“Is the Army negligent?” asked Zarr. “Yes they are, 100 percent. But you can’t sue the Army,” he said, alluding to a long-standing legal doctrine holds that troops can’t sue the military for harm they suffer while serving.

The soldiers who won their landmark verdict against the defense contractor were still grappling with the knowledge Monday.

“I don’t think it’s sunk in quite yet,” said Larry Roberta from his home in Aumsville. Roberta was a compelling figure at the trial, moving to the witness stand in his wheelchair, carrying his oxygen tank in an Army backpack. On the stand, he told the story of how he had eaten a chicken patty that had been dusted by the orange crystals blown up by the wind while he was at Qarmat Ali. The effect was like ingesting flaming gasoline, he told the jury.

Roberta stressed that money isn’t the point of the long legal fight.

“Even if I get any of this money, it’s blood money stolen from the U.S. taxpayers,” he said. He said his satisfaction will come when the widows of two Indiana Guard soldiers who served at Qarmat Ali “get something to compensate them their pain and suffering.”

The moment the verdict was read, and the four soldiers in the courtroom learned that the jurors had found in their favor, they gasped and a few shed tears.

“I was more relieved than surprised,” said Rocky Bixby, whose name is the first one listed on the lawsuit. “It was three years of frustration and anger and sadness coming out.”

Another juror, Kevin Vassily, a vice president at Portland’s Pacific Crest Securities, said the negligence finding came rather quickly. “It seemed fairly straightforward they they had botched it,” he said. KBR officials didn’t operate at Qarmat Ali the way a reasonable person with knowledge of the contaminant should have acted, he said.

“It was our belief that this was their mission,” Vassily said. “They should have identified a potent issue and done something more about it.”

While the soldiers are a long way from collecting any money, and other cases wait in the wings, somebody is glad that Roberta is spending his time back home and not in a courtroom — his houseful of exotic, rescue birds.

The birds could be heard calling and chirping as Roberta spoke on the phone Monday. “They get upset when nobody’s here,” he said.

–Mike Francis


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Posted by on Jan 2 2013. Filed under KBR Lawsuits, Local Newspapers, News Coverage, Oregon Federal Court, Oregon Live, Qarmat Ali Blog, Qarmat Ali News, Sodium Dichromate & Hexavalent Chromium. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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