Blackwater Successor Settles Two Wrongful Death Cases by Civilians and Contractors Killed in Iraq

Family members of Iraqi civilians killed by Blackwater security contractors in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square in 2007 have agreed to a settlement offered by Academi, Blackwater’s successor (also recently known as Xe Services).  [Washington Post] On September 16, 2007, Blackwater employees guarding U.S. diplomats opened fire into a crowd, killing seventeen Iraqi civilians in what was alleged by prosecutors to be an unilateral and unjustified attack.  The family members of some of the victims filed suit against the security company and five individual contractors in state court in North Carolina in 2009  for wrongful death and other torts (complaint in Brady et al v. Xe Services et al. here).

The defendants argued they were essentially U.S. government employees, and that the U.S. government should take their place as defendant.  The defendants also argued that the U.S. federal court

had no jurisdiction over an action brought by foreign nationals pertaining to a tort that ocurred in another country and which was governed by that country’s law.  Last year, this second argument prevailed in U.S. federal court, to which the Defendants had successfully sought removal, and resulted in the case being transferred back to state court. [Order here]  However, last week the parties agreed to a settlement that provides some compensation to the families, although the specific terms have not been disclosed.

In this and other instances of Iraqis killed or otherwise harmed by Blackwater employees,  plaintiffs accused the company of responsibility for war crimes under the Alien Tort Claims Act (also known as the Alien Tort Statute).  Te U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia found such claims could be brought against the corporate and individual defendants in theory; however, the court held that plaintiffs had failed to meet their pleading burden (although the judge granted leave to amend). [October 21, 2009 Opinion in In re: Xe Services Alien Tort Litigation here]  Some of the questions raised in these suits surrounding the limits of the Alien Tort Claims Act and corporate liability, in particular, are expected to be resolved in the U.S. Supreme Court’s judgment in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum later this year.

As described by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia regarding the consolidated federal actions against Xe Services:

In all of the cases, plaintiffs accuse defendants of encouraging the killing of Iraqi civilians by fostering a corporate culture in which excessive use of deadly force is unpunished. Specifically, plaintiffs accuse defendants of employing and arming people whom they know to be alcoholics, drug users, or acting under the influence of chemical substances. Moreover, plaintiffs allege that defendants hire individuals known to have engaged in human rights abuses. They claim defendants captured illegal acts by their employees on videotape and subsequently destroyed those tapes. In addition, some plaintiffs claim that defendant Prince has engaged in a pattern of racketeering activities through the commission of illegal acts including murder, tax evasion, destruction of evidence, kidnaping, weapons smuggling, sexual exploitation of minors, and unlawful possession and distribution of controlled substances.

[In re: Xe Services Alien Tort Litigation, Opinion of October 21, 2009, p. 7]  The consolidated federal claims were dismissed due to a settlement in January 2010. [Order here]

In December of 2011, Academi also settled a suit brought by the families of four contractors killed in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004 in an incident that received global attention when the bodies were hung from a bridge.  [Al Jazeera; Washington Post] The families alleged that then-Blackwater was responsible for the contractors’ deaths because it sent them into an overly dangerous situation without adequate gear or protection.

The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq leaves behind, and adds to, a significant corps of private contractors to provide security for U.S. State Department and other personnel. [Reuters; CNN; NPR]

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