Who Cares?

Celester Hall went to Afghanistan to help the troops and make his fortune. He came back deaf, in diapers and looking for benefits.

Which begs the questions: If Hall had contracted meningitis back in Texas, would the treatment have been better; would his suffering have been so severe; would he now be deaf?


Attorney Pitts has been representing Gulf war vets for 12 years, suing the companies that sold chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein. Now he's also representing overseas civilian workers.

Bema and Celester's future was brighter when they 
married.
Daniel Kramer
Bema and Celester's future was brighter when they married.
At times Bema holds up one finger to mean she's 
only one person doing as much as she can.
Daniel Kramer
At times Bema holds up one finger to mean she's only one person doing as much as she can.

He and Lewis Fleishman are friends; both are passionate about the clients they represent, but with different styles. While Pitts tends to talk in big-picture terms and doesn't hedge too much about his views on the use of civilian contractors, Fleishman is far more circumspect -- outside the courtroom, anyway -- saying he concentrates on one client at a time, hoping to work out the best possible relief for each one.

Bema Johnson-Hall likes to recall how when she finally reached Fleishman to tell him her story, he jumped in his car and drove to Bryan to see her husband. "Lewis doesn't care about the money," she says. "He cares about us."

Pitts seems to share that idealism. As a youth, he went to West Point. He left the academy because he thought the Vietnam war was unconstitutional. He joined the Army National Guard for 12 years starting in 1975 and rose to the rank of captain. He supported both the Gulf wars and our entry into Iraq.

Which doesn't mean he likes everything going on there.

"Plainly ridiculous" is how he characterizes some of the maneuvering by companies trying to get out of paying for overseas civilian workers' illnesses or injuries. Client Mark Baltazar was in a mess hall near Mosul last December when a suicide bomber blew it up. As a result, Pitts says, Baltazar needs a hearing aid. Pre-employment, the Houston resident had a moderate loss of hearing at high frequencies but did not require a hearing aid. KBR is refusing to pay, Pitts says. They are still waiting to have another hearing test scheduled.

A hearing aid costs about $500. Court costs for fighting this case would tend to run $20,000 for the defendant's attorney and $15,000 for the claimant's lawyer, Pitts says. So why incur these kinds of legal costs for something relatively inexpensive?

Even if KBR or any contractor loses, Pitts says, it doesn't absorb the expense, because it has a cost-plus contract with the government. KBR will pay the attorneys on both sides "and give the bill to the U.S. government," he says. "The taxpayers pay."

Asked about this, KBR's Norcross responded: "It is KBR's policy to not discuss corporate expenses related to litigation."

Later she wrote that KBR automatically files a DBA claim with AIG on behalf of any employee injured or killed while working on a government project overseas. "It is not up to KBR to accept or deny an employee's claim…the responsibility for the claim is transferred wholly to AIG and is no longer under KBR's purview."

With so few attorneys willing to take on these cases, self-insured companies -- as well as ones like KBR that contract out their insurance -- stand to win often when they refuse payment, Pitts says.

"The people they're screwing here are the widows and children of heroes who are going over there to support the war effort," Pitts says.

The parent company AIG is the target of several regulatory inquiries -- the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has been investigating it, for one -- but AIG WorldSource spokesman Joe Norton says none of these investigations involve his subsidiary. He also denies that his company tries to get out of its responsibilities by fighting claims it should honor.

Just because a company files a so-called controversion, that doesn't mean it's necessarily ducking its responsibilities, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. It may mean that it's just making sure that it doesn't face any penalties for not filing a form in time, according to one official who did not want to be named.

Pitts says it's true that sometimes companies will withdraw their controversions. But when they don't and it involves someone being hurt overseas, the worker receives nothing while waiting for the case to be settled, he says.

"I've had people going on welfare. I've had grown men moving in with their mothers. They become homeless," he says. Not giving them anything while the case is pending is another way, he says, that a company can pressure a former employee to settle out of court for less money.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, as of August 4, there have been 3,603 Defense Base Act claims filed by workers of all nationalities through July 27 out of Iraq (of which 116 are deaths). The Texas portion of this was 625 claims, of which 19 are deaths.

Pitts doesn't think civilian workers should be used in our present conflicts in the Middle East.

"Somebody in the Pentagon had the bright idea during the cold war called 'outsourcing' for the military," Pitts says. By bringing in support workers, the trained soldier would be freed up to do his primary job of fighting and defense. Also, it would be more economical to do it this way, since you wouldn't have all these support units sitting around during peacetime.

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