PITTSBURGH (CN) – Citing her inability to question the military’s wartime decisions, a federal judge dismissed a wrongful-death lawsuit accusing a Pentagon contractor of improperly installing a water pump that electrocuted a staff sergeant during the Iraq War.
Cheryl Harris and Douglas Maseth sued Kellogg, Brown & Root in late 2009, claiming their son, 24-year-old Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, died when an ungrounded water pump short-circuited as he was showering at the Radwaniyah Palace Complex military base.
When the pump short-circuited, the electricity traveled “through the pipes, shower head, coils and water” and caused “the water itself [to be] electrified,” according to their lawsuit. Maseth suffered a heart attack and died on the shower floor.
The Maseths blamed the malfunction on KBR’s shoddy wiring and said basic safety precautions would have prevented their son’s death, as the military knew that the electrical work at the military base was faulty.
KBR asked U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer to dismiss the claims, claiming they were barred by the political question doctrine and preempted by the Federal Tort Claims Act’s exception for “combatant activities.”
Fischer initially allowed the case to proceed, and the 3rd Circuit dismissed KBR’s subsequent appeal and remanded the case to federal court.
Once again, KBR did not challenge the merits of the couple’s claims but instead renewed its motion to dismiss.
In her 87-page ruling, Judge Fischer agreed with the Texas-based contractor that “further adjudication of this dispute will inextricably lead to consideration of military judgments for which no judicially manageable standards exist.”
“Specifically, further adjudication of this case will require evaluation of the military’s decision to continue to house soldiers in hardstand buildings with hazardous electrical systems even though the military was aware that the buildings lacked grounding and bonding and the military possessed specific knowledge that such electrical deficiencies had resulted in electrocutions to military personnel, causing injuries and even deaths, prior to the events of this case,” she wrote.
Fischer said the issues raised about KBR’s alleged negligence “cannot be answered without first considering the wisdom of military judgments, thus taking this case beyond judicial review.”
“In this Court’s view, KBR has also presented sufficient evidence from which it may legitimately argue that the military exposed soldiers to what its commanders determined to be an acceptable level of risk after considering all of the other hazards of war which were faced by soldiers in the Iraq war theatre and its ability to fund the electrical upgrades and safety features with care admittedly standard here in the United States,” Fischer wrote.
“While we believe that Plaintiffs and their experts have made a compelling case challenging the safety of KBR’s electrical work … we do not believe that this case can be further adjudicated without questioning the military’s wartime decisions which directly affected the safety of the electrical facilities in the building,” Fischer wrote. “It is not the role of the judiciary to pass judgment on the military’s decisions which affect the safety of a military base located in an active war zone and we conclude that an evaluation of KBR’s defenses cannot be divorced from these military decisions.”
Fischer emphasized that the court “does not reach its decision lightly.”
“We are certainly mindful of the loss of the plaintiffs and the ultimate sacrifice made by Staff Sergeant Maseth,” she wrote.