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Saturday, November 3, 2012 - Page updated at 08:30 p.m.

Iraq war contractor from U.S. ordered to pay $85 million

By NIGEL DUARA and STEVEN DUBOIS
The Associated Press

PORTLAND — A jury Friday ordered a U.S. military contractor to pay $85 million after finding it guilty of negligence for illnesses suffered by 12 Oregon soldiers who guarded an oil-field water plant during the Iraq war.

After a three-week trial, the jury deliberated for two days before reaching a decision against the contractor, Kellogg Brown and Root, better known as KBR.

The suit was the first concerning soldiers' exposure to a toxin at a water plant in southern Iraq. The soldiers said they suffer from respiratory ailments after their exposure to sodium dichromate, and they fear that a carcinogen the toxin contains, hexavalent chromium, could cause cancer later in life.

Rocky Bixby, the soldier whose name appeared on the suit, said the verdict should reflect a punishment for the company's neglect of U.S. soldiers.

"This was about showing that they cannot get away with treating soldiers like that," Bixby said. "It should show them what they did was wrong, prove what they did was wrong and punish them for what they did."

Each soldier received $850,000 in noneconomic damages and $6.25 million in punitive damages.

Another suit from Oregon Guardsmen is on hold while the Portland trial plays out. There are also suits pending in Texas involving soldiers from Texas, Indiana and West Virginia.

KBR was found guilty of negligence but not of a secondary claim of fraud. U.S. District Judge Paul Papak acknowledged before the trial began that, whatever the verdict, the losing side was likely to appeal.

KBR attorney Geoffrey Harrison confirmed Friday that the company will appeal, saying the verdict "bears no rational relationship to the evidence."

KBR witnesses testified the soldiers' maladies were a result of the desert air and pre-existing conditions. Even if they were exposed to sodium dichromate, KBR witnesses argued, the soldiers weren't around enough of it, for long enough, to cause serious health problems.

The contractor's defense rested on the fact company officials informed the Army of the risks of exposure to sodium dichromate.

KBR was charged with reconstructing the decrepit, scavenged plant just after the March 2003 invasion while National Guardsmen defended the area. Bags of unguarded sodium dichromate — a corrosive substance used to keep pipes at the water plant free of rust — were ripped open, allowing the substance to spread across the plant and into the air.

Attorneys for the 12 Oregon National Guardsmen focused on April, May and June 2003, alleging KBR knew about the presence of sodium dichromate and took no action.

One of the soldiers' key witnesses, a doctor, testified that hexavalent chromium caused a change to soldiers' genes, leaving them more susceptible to cancer. KBR's attorneys challenged that claim, saying the soldiers' witness was the only physician in the U.S. prepared to make such a statement.

Plaintiff Jason Arnold said he understands that contractors are a necessity for often-specialized tasks, but he hopes the verdict forces the U.S. military to re-examine its relationship with the private defense industry.

"For a corporation to come in and have this much disregard for the health and well-being of men that are shedding blood, sweat and tears for this country," Arnold said, "for them to come in and to say that we mean less than their profit, is wrong."

During the Iraq war, KBR was the engineering and construction arm of Halliburton, the biggest U.S. contractor during the conflict. KBR split from Halliburton in April 2007. Dick Cheney, who later became George W. Bush's vice president, was chairman and chief executive of Halliburton from 1995 to 2000.

KBR has faced lawsuits before related to its work in Iraq.

Information from The Seattle Times archive is included in this report.

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