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Iraq war contractor ordered to pay $85 million

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NIGEL DUARA and STEVEN DUBOIS | November 2, 2012 08:34 PM EST | AP

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PORTLAND, Ore. — A jury on Friday ordered an American military contractor to pay $85 million after finding it guilty of negligence for illnesses suffered by a dozen Oregon soldiers who guarded an oilfield water plant during the Iraq war.

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

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 a secondary claim of fraud. U.S. District Court Judge Paul Papak acknowledged before the trial began that, whatever the verdict, the losing side was likely to appeal it.

Any appeal must first wait for Papak to formally enter the judgment.

The company will appeal the verdict, said KBR attorney Geoffrey Harrison in a statement issued late Friday afternoon. Harrison said the verdict "bears no rational relationship to the evidence."

"KBR did safe, professional, and exceptional work in Iraq under difficult circumstances," Harrison said in the statement," and multiple U.S. Army officers testified under oath that KBR communicated openly and honestly about the potential health risks.

"We believe the facts and law ultimately will provide vindication."

KBR witnesses testified that 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 ultimately rested on the fact that they informed the U.S. Army of the risks of exposure to sodium dichromate.

KBR was tasked 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 an into the air.

Attorneys for the 12 Oregon National Guardsmen focused on the months of 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 diagnosis, saying the soldiers' witness was the only physician in the U.S. prepared to make such a diagnosis.

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 reexamine 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.

KBR has faced lawsuits before related to its work in Iraq. One of the more prominent cases, involving a soldier who was electrocuted in his barracks shower at an Army base, was dismissed.

A second case is still in Maryland federal court, in which former KBR employees and others who worked on Army bases in Iraq and Afghanistan allege KBR allowed them to be exposed to toxic smoke from garbage disposal "burn pits."