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This Will Improve KBR’s Image

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Jamie Leigh Jones / Getty Images

If KBR’s one-time management by the autobiographical Dick Cheney doesn’t buff the company’s reputation, this ought to do the trick: KBR is suing a woman who claimed that she was raped while working in Iraq for KBR in 2005. In the crazy world of torts and courts, Jamie Leigh Jones had sued KBR for $145 million, claiming the company let a hostile sexual climate exist in Iraq. Last month, a jury found the company not guilty of the charge.

So KBR has filed a motion seeking to recover more than $2 million it says it spent defending itself against what it called Jones’ “frivolous, unreasonable and groundless” claims. KBR was the federal government’s seventh-biggest contractor last year, pocketing $4.5 billion, including contracts to support U.S. troops in various locations around the world.

What does this tell us, beyond the certainty that our legal system is run by morons?

In the strange world of war, larded as it has become with contractors making lots of money – and employees of said contractors wanting a piece of that pie – good behavior sometimes goes out the window, on both sides.

I have no dog in this fight. It seems Jones and her lawyer were looking for their idea of justice – and a fat payout – and the jury balked. KBR, instead of viewing the unpleasantness as a simple cost of doing business, seems to be seeking the reimbursement not to fill the yawning gap in its wallet, but to deter future employees from doing the same.

It reminds me of a case I covered long ago. A pair of military helicopter pilots died when their chopper crashed in Maryland in 1981. A federal jury in Baltimore awarded them $3.65 million in damages in 1985. It concluded the helicopter’s design – which could trigger a catastrophic failure of the main rotor blade – was “unreasonably dangerous.”

But manufacturer Bell Helicopter got the verdict tossed out by a federal appeals court in 1986. The appellate court ruled that Bell was merely building a machine whose blueprints had been approved by the military. That military rubber stamp, the court said, made the military responsible for the design problem — and the military traditionally is immune from such suits. Case dismissed.

Bell responded to its “victory” by filing a motion seeking nearly $50,000 from the two widows involved, to reimburse Bell for travel expenses associated with the original trial. Once Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., learned of the motion – and summoned Bell and its lawyers to Washington to explain their action – the company quickly abandoned its push to force the widows to pay.

It seems shame sometimes has its benefits, even if it take a lawmaker – and the threat of bad publicity – to bring it to full flower. As far as I can tell, no lawmaker has stepped forward to ask why a multi-billion-dollar corporation is hounding a former employee for more than $2 million. KBR’s lawyers say the sum is “reasonable and necessary.” Kind of makes you wonder if they apply the same rigor to the bills they submit to us taxpayers as well. Finally, if her charges truly were “frivolous, unreasonable and groundless,” why did KBR’s lawyers have to spend more than $2 million defending against them?

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