Legal Briefing: Judge Keeps Heat on KBR, Halliburton in Burn Pits Lawsuit


A daily look at legal news and the business of law:

Halliburton and KBR Burn Pits Case Goes Forward

There's no question that military contractors Halliburton and Kellogg, Brown and Root violated the terms of their contracts with the U.S. government to dispose of waste in combat zones in a safe and environmentally sound manner: In Iraq and Afghanistan, the two companies repeatedly torched waste in open burn pits. Toxic smoke and contaminated water from those pits has allegedly caused numerous illnesses in exposed soldiers, including cancer and respiratory disease, according to the plaintiffs in 43 suits against them. The question is, were there extenuating circumstances that will allow KBR and Halliburton to avoid punishment.

Thus far, it appears not: The judge overseeing the consolidated cases ruled late last week that the cases could go forward, rejecting for the time being defense claims that the court lacked jurisdiction. As a result, limited discovery will begin.

The next key issue will whether or not the military authorized Halliburton and KBR to disregard the contractual requirements. If the companies had permission, the plaintiffs are out of luck, and their illnesses will be just another part of the price they and their families will pay for their service to their country.

Juries Are Kinder When There Are Fewer Victims

When awarding damages, including punitive damages, juries will punish and compensate more if only a few people were hurt; when the number of people damaged rises, awards to each person shrink. That's the conclusion of a study reported on by the ABA Journal.

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The three-part study found that people are instinctively more motivated to act by individual pain than by mass suffering. In the study's two experiments, people recommended more jail time for someone who defrauded a couple of people than someone who defrauded many, and were more likely to blow the whistle on a tainted food factory if a few people were sickened than if many were. Those results were in sync with the study's review of mass tort verdicts, which found that the larger the number of people harmed by asbestos, toxic mold and lead paint, the smaller the amount of punitive damages and generally the less compensation per victim. As the study's authors point out, Josef Stalin famously said, "One death is a tragedy; one million a statistic."

Attorney Crime

A Massachusetts real estate attorney has been indicted for 27 counts related to a large mortgage fraud scheme, reports The Boston Globe. He faces 10 to 30 years in prison for each count. Three other men are already facing related charges in the case. Allegedly, the four conspired to turn 50 buildings into 170 condos, which they sold as investment properties to people who had no capacity to buy them, defrauding the mortgage lenders by manufacturing documents suggesting the buyers could afford the properties and intended to live in them as primary residences. The 50 buildings were concentrated in two neighborhoods, and are now abandoned or foreclosed, which has done long-term damage to the neighborhoods. The Globe has photos, the indictments and several related stories at the link.