Contractor: Use Iraqi law in suit over Pa. soldier’s death

Posted: April 06, 2011

U.S. soldiers living on military bases in Iraq had no expectation that they were protected by Pennsylvania law instead of Iraqi law, a lawyer for a Houston-based defense contractor argued yesterday in Pittsburgh federal court.

KBR Inc. wants U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer to use Iraqi law in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the parents of Sgt. Ryan Maseth, 24, of Allegheny County, against the company. Maseth was electrocuted Jan. 2, 2008, while showering at a military base in Baghdad.

Cheryl Harris and Douglas Maseth claim shoddy electrical work by the contractor caused their son's death. KBR has denied responsibility and argues that Iraq has more interest in having its law applied to this case than Texas, Pennsylvania or Tennessee.

Harris said after yesterday's hearing that KBR's arguments just feed the frustration she feels from having the case stuck in pretrial maneuvers for the last three years. Members of the military deserve to have U.S. standards applied to the bases they serve on, she said.

"It's quite sad that KBR would think otherwise," Harris said, "that they would be paid billions of dollars and not be expected to protect U.S. soldiers."

Dan Russell, a lawyer for KBR, declined comment after the hearing.

During the hearing, he argued that federal courts generally use the laws of the location where an accident occurred unless, as in the case of a plane accident, the location is coincidental to the accident.

"It was not random that this accident took place in Iraq," he said.

He also argued that Iraqi law should apply because the building, while part of a U.S. military base, was owned by the Iraqi government.

Bill Stickman, one of the attorneys representing Maseth's parents, said claiming the base was an Iraqi facility is ludicrous. It was a U.S. military base and KBR was a U.S. contractor providing services to U.S. soldiers.

"An Iraqi family out for a drive had no right to drive onto that base," he said.

KBR's contract with the military also says that U.S. law would apply to any claims arising from the contract, he said. While KBR says that language only applies to contract disputes, Stickman argued that it also establishes the expectation that the soldiers on the base would be protected by liability laws in the United States, not Iraq.

In particular, the part of the contract dealing with KBR maintaining the electrical system refers to federal safety regulations and U.S. electrical codes, he said.

"There's not a single Iraqi electrical standard here," Stickman said.

Fischer noted that the main reason KBR wants to use Iraqi law is that it doesn't allow for the award of punitive damages in civil cases. She gave KBR two weeks to file a final written argument on why it believes Iraqi law should apply to the case. The parents' attorneys will then have two weeks to file their response, and she plans to issue a decision within 30 days after those arguments are filed.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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