A North Carolina-based security contractor lost a federal appeal Thursday in a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by the families of four men killed and publicly mutilated in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004.
The decision by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., means that after a year and a half of motions and appeals, the lawsuit can move forward in Wake County Superior Court and that Blackwater Security Consulting will likely have to give up records and oral depositions about the incident, said Marc Miles, an attorney for the families.
The families had long sought these things, saying that the company has told them almost nothing about how their relatives were killed.
The ruling was decided by a three-judge panel that heard the appeal in March. Blackwater could seek a rare petition for a rehearing by all 13 judges of the appeals court or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but either request would face extraordinary scrutiny.
"Blackwater has stalled this case for more than a year and a half, and this is finally the opportunity for the families to have their day in court, to get some answers and for Blackwater to be held accountable," said Miles, who is with Callahan & Blaine, the California law firm representing the families.
Blackwater had moved the case to federal district court in North Carolina, but a judge there sent it back to the state court.
Then, in the appeal to the 4th Circuit, Blackwater sought to have the case put back in federal court, saying it was too important to national security to be heard in state court. Alternatively, it asked for the case to be dismissed completely, arguing that no court has jurisdiction over what was essentially a U.S. military function.
Blackwater's owner, millionaire and former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, is well-connected in Washington and known for supporting conservative candidates and causes.
The 4th Circuit, meanwhile, is regarded by legal experts as the nation's most conservative federal appeals court. The court's long and detailed response, though, offered little help for the company.
Judge Allyson Kay Duncan, a Durham native who once taught law at N.C. Central University and who was appointed to the court by President Bush, wrote the decision.
In it, she dismissed some of Blackwater's logic as circular. "Distilled to their essence, Blackwater's arguments appear to be that we must have jurisdiction because we have no jurisdiction," she wrote.
Blackwater had a substantial hurdle to leap in its appeal, she wrote, because Congress has severely limited federal appeals courts' authority to review decisions to send cases from federal court back to state court.
Neither the general counsel for Blackwater's parent company, former Pentagon Inspector General Joseph Schmitz, nor C. Allen Foster, the attorney who led its oral arguments in the appeal, returned calls Thursday.
Bodies set ablaze
The men who were killed, Wesley J.K. Batalona, Stephen "Scott" Helvenston, Mike R. Teague and Jerko "Jerry" Zovko were providing security for cargo trucks belonging to a Halliburton subcontractor in March 2004 when they were ambushed.
After the attackers fled, a crowd gathered and set the vehicles and bodies ablaze and beat on the corpses. Two bodies were dragged through the streets and hanged from a bridge, images that became a symbol of the U.S. struggles in Iraq.
The attack occurred on the team's first mission providing security for a food service company contracted to feed U.S. troops.
The families charged in the lawsuit that Blackwater hadn't provided their employees with crucial things that they had been promised: armored vehicles, maps, machine guns, additional personnel and time to familiarize themselves with the area. These things could have prevented the deaths, family members have said.
When they took the jobs, which paid about $600 a day, the men signed contracts that seemed to bar their right to sue.
The contracts were explicit about the dangers they could face, among other things: "being shot, permanently maimed and/or killed by a firearm or munitions, falling aircraft or helicopters, sniper fire, land mine, artillery fire, rocket-propelled grenade, truck or car bomb."