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Harris v. Kellogg

March 11, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Nora Barry Fischer



Once again, this Court turns to a legal issue arising out of the tragic death of Staff Sergeant Ryan D. Maseth. Staff Sergeant Maseth was an active duty Army Ranger and Green Beret serving with the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) of the United States Army who died on January 2, 2008 while stationed at the Special Operations Task Force-Central, Radwaniyah Palace Complex ("RPC")in Bahgdad, Iraq. (Docket No. 1 at ¶ 3; Docket No. 1-3 at ¶¶ 6, 8). Pending before the Court is a Motion for Sanctions filed by Plaintiffs, Cheryl A. Harris and Douglas Maseth, executrix and executor of the Estate of Ryan Maseth, respectively, (hereinafter "Plaintiffs"). (Docket No. 98). Plaintiffs allege that Defendant Kellogg, Brown and Root Services, Inc. ("Defendant" or "KBR"), with assistance of counsel, issued two press releases to local media outlets in violation of Local Rule 83.1(G) of the Local Rules for the Western District of Pennsylvania. (Id.). Defendant contends that sanctions are not warranted under the circumstances. (Docket No. 106). Based on the following, Plaintiffs' motion is DENIED.


Plaintiffs' motion arises from Defendant's recent dissemination of two press releases to local media outlets, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Tribune Review. (Docket No. 98). Those documents, titled "Facts About Electrocutions in Iraq" and "Summary of Confirmed and Suspected Deaths by Electrocution in Iraq (2003-2009)" were released to the local media outlets by Defendant's Director of Communications, Heather Browne, on February 19, 2009. (Docket Nos. 98-3, 98-4).

The first document, "Facts About Electrocution Deaths in Iraq" describes itself as a "bullet paper" which "identifies examples of false or inaccurate allegations" regarding KBR's maintenance work in Iraq and "provides a summary of the relevant facts that demonstrate that these reports are incorrect." (Docket No. 98-3 at 1). The first section of this document, titled "Electrocutions Generally," asserts that the following "allegations" reported by the media are "plainly false":

(1) KBR's maintenance work has been 'linked' to 18 electrocutions;

(2) 18 electrocution deaths were caused by KBR's 'shoddy' electrical work; and,

(3) 18 electrocutions occurred in similar circumstances at facilities maintained by KBR. (Id.). The document includes three "examples" of allegedly false or misleading statements that have been reported in the media including articles published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the New York Times. (Id.). A "Facts" section then provides bullet points describing "[a] breakdown of the circumstances surrounding each of the electrocution deaths." (Id. at 2). That section includes the following statements:

KBR is aware of 18 soldiers whose deaths were confirmed by publicly available sources to be by electrocution; '[T]here is no evidence that KBR had any relevant maintenance responsibility or involvement' with '17 out of the 18 electrocutions; and, The Maseth incident ... involved a building over which KBR had contractual authority to perform only limited maintenance.

(Id.). Five bullet points specifically address the deaths of 16 soldiers not related to this litigation. (Id.). Three bullet points then discuss the death of Sergeant Christopher Everett, while first acknowledging that "this incident is the subject of ongoing litigation." (Id.). A final bullet point states the following:

One soldier died at a facility for which KBR had only limited maintenance responsibility. Although KBR had notified the military that the building had a deficient electrical system, the military had not directed KBR to repair the system. This is the incident involving SSG Maseth, described further below. (Id. at 3).

"Below" is a two page section titled "SSG Maseth / Army CID Investigation" which explains that "[m]edia reports surrounding the death of SSG Maseth have included false and misleading statements, including the incorrect assertion that the Army CID investigation has concluded that SSG Maseth's death was due to 'negligent homicide.'" (Id.). Several bullet points describe KBR's position that it was required only to provide "limited maintenance" to the building in which SSG Maseth died, and that "the military did not direct or authorize KBR to repair the deficient electrical system" in that building. (Id. at 3-4). This section states that the following "allegations" are "plainly false and have been rejected by the Army CID itself":

(1) Army CID concluded that KBR and KBR employees committed 'negligent homicide'; and, (2) Army CID concluded that the electrocution was caused by 'substandard work' by KBR. (Id. at 4). Four bullet points next describe "examples of false or misleading media statements" related to these allegations including reports by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and the Los Angeles Times. (Id.). Another "Facts" section refutes these "allegations" with additional bullet points including statements that "an Army CID spokesman publicly denied the allegations" and denied "that [the Army CID] had made any finding of negligent homicide." (Id. at 5).

A final section of this document contains a two page discussion of additional allegations of KBR's involvement in the electrocution of another soldier, Private First Class Justin Shults, as reported in the San Antonio ...

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