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Grappling with Contractor Immunity

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A little more than six years ago, Lt. Col. Dominic “Rocky” Baragona was on his way home. He had a long journey ahead, but he was looking forward to it. Colonel Baragona was serving in Iraq, and his tour was up. He had just spoken with his father by satellite phone, telling him that he’d be in Kuwait the next day to board his flight back, “unless something stupid happens.” Hours later, something stupid happened. A private truck carrying supplies on a U.S. military contract careened three lanes across a highway and struck the humvee in which Colonel Baragona was traveling. He died in a gruesome traffic accident. After an investigation, the military concluded that the incident involved serious negligence by the contractor but no criminal wrongdoing. Colonel Baragona’s family filed suit against the Kuwaiti contractor in federal court in Georgia. They secured a default judgment, and then the contractor came back to court to reopen the case.

The contractor got the judgment vacated on the grounds that the court had no in personam jurisdiction to handle the suit. Watching the lawyers for the contractor high-five one another was almost as painful an experience as the first word of his son’s death, Mr. Baragona said. “They bragged, ‘We never even had to notify our insurer.'” The contractor had been required by U.S. contracting rules to take out insurance to cover just such an event–not that it mattered, since no American court could require them to pay. Neither could any court in Iraq, it turns out, because of Order No. 17, issued by Paul Bremer as American proconsul, which had granted contractors immunity from process in Iraqi courts. The contractor, it turned out, had been completely immunized for its wrongful acts.

On Wednesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s contractor oversight subcommittee took a look at the Baragona case with the clear intention of closing this loophole. Dominic Baragona, Sr., the colonel’s father, gave moving testimony about his long struggle for justice. I also appeared and supported efforts to clarify the scope of jurisdiction granted U.S. courts over U.S. government contractors. Read an account of the hearing here. Read my testimony here.

I was impressed by how well the legislation’s sponsors, Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Robert Bennett (R-Utah), had laid the groundwork for the hearing, as well as by the depth of their questioning. Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.) also weighed in, probing the scope of immunity. Change is on the way.

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