(CN) – Defense contractors can be sued for allegedly burning waste in open pits in Iraq and Afghanistan without the military’s permission, exposing soldiers and civilian employees to contaminated water and toxic chemicals, a federal judge in Maryland ruled.
U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus declined to dismiss 43 consolidated lawsuits accusing Kellogg Brown & Root and Halliburton Co. of injuring soldiers, veterans and employees through exposure to the so-called “burn pits.”
“The costs … of blanketing government contractors with the sovereign’s cloak of immunity at this early stage of the litigation are significant,” Titus wrote.
He noted that the lawsuits were filed by soldiers, veterans and former contractor employees who say KBR and Halliburton used burn pits to dispose of waste on military bases without permission from the government.
“Assuming the truth of these allegations, refusing such victims compensation and allowing Defendants’ allegedly unauthorized conduct to go unredressed would be contrary to the most fundamental tenets of our legal system,” Titus wrote.
The contractors argued that they could not be held liable for any injuries that occurred while they were carrying out the government’s work.
Judge Titus acknowledged that an efficient military is in the public’s interest, but he said it was too soon to decide that interest trumps the alleged victims’ interest “in holding Defendants accountable for any such wrongful conduct that may be proven.”
Although he allowed the case to proceed, he recognized “the importance of not overly burdening the military and its personnel with onerous and intrusive discovery requests” and said the “full fury of unlimited discovery will not be unleashed at this time.”
Instead, he ordered the parties to develop a plan for “carefully limited discovery,” inviting the government to weigh in on the plan.
He stressed that the strength of the plaintiffs’ claims “rises and falls” with their ability “to demonstrate through discovery that Defendants committed unauthorized, negligent acts.”