A federal judge in Portland Friday affirmed $75 million in punitive damages a jury awarded to 12 Oregon National Guard veterans last fall in a case against government contractor KBR, Inc. for its conduct in Iraq a decade ago.
Magistrate Judge Paul Papak trimmed compensatory damages for each soldier from $850,000 to $500,000 because he determined Oregon law required the reduction. Total compensatory damages now stand at $6 million, setting the total award at $81 million.
“Judge Papak conducted a detailed, independent review that fully confirmed that the jury rendered a just and fair verdict,” said David Sugerman, the Portland lawyer who represents the soldiers along with Mike Doyle, of Houston.
KBR had filed numerous motions and reasons to have the court throw out the jury verdict since last November. But Papak spelled out in a 63-page document that he rejected KBR’s demand for reduction of damages assessed against the contractor for misconduct.
The court also noted additional factual findings, including: “A preponderance of the trial evidence establishes that the trial defendants, by and through their employees or agents, affirmatively misrepresented the extent of the risk posed by sodium dichromate at Qarmat Ali to trial plaintiffs and others in their chain of command, and failed to disclose the extent of that risk to any trial plaintiff.”
The case stems from the chaotic aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The Army Corps of Engineers hired KBR Inc. to quickly restore the flow of Iraq’s oil. Qarmat Ali was a compound where water was pumped underground to drive oil to the surface elsewhere.
Iraqis had treated the water with sodium dichromate, an anticorrosion agent that contains hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen. Soldiers and others testified that the material was loose and drifting around the site, and had contaminated areas even outside the chemical injection building where it was added to the water. Veterans accused KBR of knowingly exposing them to the carcinogen, which KBR denied.
The punitive damages were awarded as jurors considered if KBR acted with “reckless and outrageous indifference to a highly unreasonable risk of harm” and if the company showed “conscious indifference to the health, safety and welfare” of the soldiers.
Papak’s ruling doesn’t provide an immediate windfall for any of the soldiers, who will be awarded no money until appeals are exhausted. Further, each soldier is entitled to only a fraction of the punitive awards. The bulk of punitive damages are collected by the state, which uses it in its criminal victims fund and to fund judicial operations.
Papak’s final order for the 12 soldiers Friday will be followed by a final judgment. At that point, either side could appeal to the Ninth Circuit.
Another set of Oregon soldiers are waiting in the wings for their day in court. Papak and the attorneys agreed to hold an initial trial with the first 12 soldiers, in order to keep the proceedings from becoming too unwieldy, and letting any motions and appeals be decided before the next trial.
— Joan Carlin