Four American civilians employed by security contractor Blackwater were killed in Fallujah, Iraq in March 2004 after gunmen opened fire on their vehicles. When the vehicles stopped, a crowd of people converged, throwing rocks and setting the vehicles on fire. The four men were shot and killed and, in a scene that would haunt American headlines, their bodies were pulled from the burned vehicles and dragged through the city. Pictures shown on television depicted people mutilating the bodies and hanging two of them from a bridge over the Euphrates River. Media around the world showed these images. The U.S. launched an assault on the city in response to the incident, which occurred at the beginning of the second year of American involvement in Iraq.
The four men worked as guards for Blackwater, now known as Academi. Blackwater was contracted by the U.S. military to provide various security services for American forces. One of the men was a former Navy SEAL, and the other three were former Army Rangers. At the time of the attack, they were traveling in two Mitsubishi SUV’s escorting a convoy of trucks to an American base to pick up some kitchen equipment. They had reportedly bypassed a Marine checkpoint when they entered Fallujah.
In January 2005, about eight months after the attack, the families of the four men filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court against Blackwater. The lawsuit accused Blackwater of violating its contractual obligations to the men by putting them in harm’s way without adequate armor or weapons. The SUV’s were not armored, and they did not have sufficient personnel to operate rear guns that might have offered protection from gunmen in the city.
Blackwater argued that it should have immunity from lawsuits under the principle of sovereign immunity. This principle typically applies to government entities and officials. Blackwater, being a private business, argued that the military’s widespread use of private contractors gave them the benefit of sovereign immunity. The company took this argument as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, who declined to hear the case. Then Blackwater invoked a mandatory arbitration clause in the men’s employment contracts.
A federal judge ordered the parties to arbitration in 2007, and they spent more than three years fighting over payment of arbitrators’ fees. The families filed an appeal of the judge’s order with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the parties entered into a settlement agreement before the appeal could be heard. The terms of the settlement remain confidential.
The lawsuit, had it continued, could have taken on many questions relating to the liability of private companies employed by the government in highly dangerous locations for dangerous work. The government makes use of private contractors for many jobs from war zones to disaster areas. Companies such as Blackwater have long sought to deflect attempts to scrutinize much of their operations and to utilize as much of the immunity enjoyed by the government as they can. Many of these questions must continue to wait for an answer.
The Washington, DC injury lawyers at Lebowitz & Mzhen help people injured due to the negligence of others to recover their just compensation. For a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949.
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