In a major blow to one of the most infamous war profiteers operating in Iraq, Afghanistan and New Orleans, a federal appeals court has ruled that a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the mercenary firm Blackwater USA can proceed in North Carolina’s state courts. The suit was brought by the families of the four Blackwater contractors ambushed and killed in Falluja, Iraq on March 31, 2004. Blackwater had tried to have the same case dismissed or moved to federal court.
“I’ve been bawling ever since I’ve heard the decision,” says Katy Helvenston, whose son Scott was killed in Falluja, his charred body hung from a bridge. “It’s been overwhelming. I am so glad that they ruled this way. Blackwater has stalled and stalled. Look at the hundreds of millions of dollars in profits in Iraq and New Orleans they’ve made since my son was killed. It’s time to go to trial and let the chips fall where they may.”
The lawsuit, filed in January 2005, alleges that Blackwater cut corners in the interest of profits, leading to the brutal deaths of the four men: Scott Helvenston, Jerko “Jerry” Zovko, Mike Teague and Wes Batalona. “It has now been more than a year and a half since the lawsuit was filed, and Blackwater has managed to stall and frustrate the litigation,” Marc Miles, an attorney for the families, told me. “I anticipate that this matter will now be on a fast track to trial, and believe that a jury will ultimately find Blackwater liable for its wrongful conduct in causing the deaths of these four Americans.”
In its motion to dismiss the case in federal court, Blackwater argued that the families of the four men are entitled only to government insurance payments under the federal Defense Base Act. Many firms specializing in contractor law advertise the DBA as the best way for corporations servicing the war to avoid being sued. “What Blackwater is trying to do is to sweep all of their wrongful conduct into the Defense Base Act,” says Miles. Blackwater spokesperson Chris Taylor told the Associated Press, “We are reviewing the decision.”
Blackwater argued in its appeal that the four men “were performing a classic military function…with authorization from the Office of the Secretary of Defense that classified their missions as ‘official duties’ in support of the Coalition Provisional Authority” and therefore any court, federal or state, “may not impose liability for casualties sustained in the battlefield in the performance of these duties.” In other words, because Blackwater was supporting the occupation with its forces, the company is immune from damages or lawsuits. The court said this argument “proves too much” to permit, saying Blackwater’s “constitutional interpretations” were “too extravagantly recursive for us to accept.”
The ruling Thursday by the three-judge panel of the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals gives “the green light” to a trial that the families believe will show that Blackwater was ultimately responsible for the deaths of their loved ones, says attorney Miles. The incident sparked the first US siege of Falluja, in April 2004, resulting in the deaths of more than 600 Iraqis.
“The message that this ruling sends to Blackwater is that it must now face the evidence in this case, including answering tough questions and producing critical documents, which it has refused to do for more than a year and a half,” says Miles. “Blackwater cannot be allowed to get away with murder and that’s what they’re trying to do,” adds Helvenston. “There’s got to be accountability.”