Family of Truckdriver Killed in Iraq Sues Halliburton For Wrongful Death

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In the first of what are expected to be several lawsuits, the family of Tony Johnson blames Halliburton for his death a year ago in Iraq. Halliburton is the primary contractor providing logistical support to the military in Iraq. [includes rush transcript]

The daughter of an American truck driver killed in Iraq filed a federal lawsuit yesterday against Halliburton, the primary contractor providing logistical support to the military in Iraq. She is seeking redress for the wrongful death of Tony Johnson, a truck driver from Riverside, California, who was killed almost one year ago near Baghdad International Airport. This is the first of what are expected to be several lawsuits by truck drivers and their families against the Houston-based company. Johnson was one of 19 truck drivers carrying fuel for the United States military from Camp Anaconda to the airport. The convoy drove straight into a major gun battle on April 9, 2004, on what has become the world’s most dangerous highway. Two hours later six drivers had died, one was kidnapped and one had disappeared. Only 11 made it to their destination alive that day–the first anniversary of the United States defeat of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. We are joined on the phone by Pratap Chatterjee–the Executive Director of and author of the book “Iraq Inc.: A Profitable Occupation.”

  • Pratap Chatterjee, Executive Director of and author of the book “Iraq Inc.: A Profitable Occupation.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined today on the phone by Pratap Chatterjee, Executive Director of and author of the book Iraq, Inc.: A Profitable Occupation. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Pratap.

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Thank you for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what this lawsuit is all about?

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Well, the lawsuit, which was filed by a firm in Orange County, California, is basically stating that the company intentionally placed these workers in harm’s way. In fact, it goes further than that. It says that they were a decoy to ensure that if there was an attack, one of two convoys carrying fuel would be able to make it through, and what’s most bizarre about this is that the second convoy made it through, whereas the Hamill convoy — this convoy is often called a Hamill convoy because Thomas Hamill was the leader of the convoy. Listeners may recall that he was kidnapped very dramatically and shown on video, and then escaped three weeks later and wrote a book about his exploits. Well, almost every other driver who made it through and the seven families that were killed are not happy with Halliburton. And one of the reasons they’re not happy is the fact that they were sent on this trip without adequate preparation. In fact, many of them — most of them had not traveled this route and weren’t really sure exactly where they were going. And they were traveling — they were driving unarmed military vehicles, as opposed to civilian trucks, and then finally that the military didn’t provide them with adequate protection. Normally the military is supposed to provide at least one soldier per two trucks, and they only had six out of a minimum ten that should have been supplied. Well, then — and what’s most ironic is once they got to the Baghdad International Airport where they were delivering the fuel, the people in the airport said we don’t even need this fuel. And it’s symptomatic of either the chaos in Iraq or, you know, the bureaucratic and incompetent bungling of a lot of the logistical support that Halliburton’s doing. And you have to wonder how much of each — how much it’s intentional and badly managed or how much of it is chaos.

The lawsuit is alleging that this is deliberate and, in fact, because the Halliburton managers knew that there was a very good chance that the soldiers would be — that the truck drivers might get killed, that this — they needed to send two convoys in two different directions to double their chances of making it through, and so what’s happened now is that many of the families are bringing this lawsuit against Halliburton and, in fact, most of the people in the convoy are expected to join this lawsuit in the next two weeks.

The actual incident, as you said, happened on April 9, which was the — which was probably the most dangerous date to travel in Iraq to date, and I was actually there in Iraq that day, and I was staying at the Al Fanar Hotel right across from where the Halliburton employees stay in Baghdad. And every half hour a tank would go out and say, “Do not travel, do not travel this day.” The military has a system of classifying the danger level on the roads. Green means you can go, [inaudible] means be cautious, red means it’s very dangerous, and black means nobody should travel at all. All the roads were black, and they were not supposed to leave the Camp Anaconda, which is where they were based near Balad.

Now, here’s the problem, is that a soldier — in fact, that particular day, a previous convoy or perhaps even two convoys, I think, had gone out on that road and been shot at, in fact, had lost several trucks and came back. So you would think that at some point the military would say we’ve got to stop taking chances, but that’s not what happened. Except for the fact, and this is, you know — again, this is definitely the bungling side of things — a soldier actually sent out a message saying, “Roads very dangerous. Advise do not travel,” or something to that effect. But by mistake he sent the email to himself instead of the truck drivers, so it never made it to them, so perhaps that was the mistake that was made. The ultimate result is that they ran into this two-hour gun battle out of which — out of the 19 men, as you said, you know, six — well, six have died, one has disappeared and is almost certainly dead.

AMY GOODMAN: Pratap Chatterjee, the difference between what the drivers say happened on that day and what Halliburton says happened, and the U.S. military?

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Well, Halliburton says that they take all possible precautions and they train the drivers and, in fact, post that incident, they’ve doubled their precautions, they’ve stopped sending out convoys and that sort of thing. Now here’s the crucial difference, I think, also, and even if you look at it as bungling and chaos and things like that, is that the company in recruiting the drivers, and this was as I say, were never informed of what would happen, and in fact, they were informed of exactly the opposite. They were told if there was any danger, they could leave at any time, and that, they discovered, was not true, so truck drivers were lured — most of these people, you know, they’re from Mississippi (in fact, one of the truck drivers was from Mississippi, and he’s the one who disappeared, you know), from North Carolina, from Alabama, all over the country. They’re lured by this promise of $100,000. And this is where Kim Johnson, the ex-wife of Tony Johnson, the driver who was killed, and April Johnson who is bringing the lawsuit, really want the public to know that these jobs are dangerous and that, in fact, you get paid badly, you live in bad conditions, and they won’t protect you, and so to them, even more than getting compensation, is the fact that they feel like the company has completely misled the soldiers from day one. I mean, they’re not even hired by Halliburton. They’re hired by a Cayman Island subsidiary called the Service Employees International, and once they get there, their salary is — and this is getting to maybe not the details of the lawsuit, but — the salary is actually $16 an hour. It is not $100,000 a year. You have got to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and if you don’t stay your full year, it’s not even tax free. So what the family is saying, Tony Johnson’s daughter, April Johnson and her mom, is that the company has completely misled these drivers in what — in the jobs that they’re doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the military’s role in this? For example, in a piece you write, “Driving Into Danger,” you say that it’s clear some of the blame does lie with the military, and you talk an email that was, well, kind of sent, but to the wrong person.

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: That’s correct, Amy. Email was sent by a soldier who was supposed to be in charge of telling them about risk, and I think the original email, which I haven’t seen, we know just the circumstances of it, was about the fact that other convoys had been attacked on the same road, so he was supposed to have sent it to the — directly to the drivers, and they have these QUALCOMM units in the trucks, and so they would have been able to pick up something like that. However, by mistake he sent it to himself, and so — and the mistake was not discovered. So a crucial piece of information was missing. Now the army has actually done a very extensive report on this, because this is literally the most dangerous day for contractors to date. It’s rare that so many people are killed, you know, on the same day, and so a report was done by the person who was in charge of this convoy, at least the military protection of the convoy, and his name is Colonel Bunch. And so he’s produced a 280-page report, and this is, you know, obviously, a secret report. It’s been shared with the families themselves, like the Johnsons, but what’s missing is a lot of information that Halliburton’s blacked out. Halliburton said you cannot publish this information. And, in fact, what Colonel Bunch says, specifically — he’s with 172 Core Support Group — he says if information was promptly sent to subordinate units, actions could have been taken to potentially minimize impact of hostile engagement which, you know, is military speak for, you know, they screwed up.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to investigative reporter, Pratap Chatterjee. He’s Executive Director of, has just written the piece, “Driving Into Danger,” about lawsuit brought by survivors of those in Iraq working for Halliburton. We’re going to come back with Pratap Chatterjee in a minute, and we’ll also be speaking with the father of a man who works for KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary — that’s Kellogg, Brown and Root. And we’re going to be talking about the situation his son is in. He says he was gang beaten by other employees of KBR.


AMY GOODMAN: As we continue to talk about the lawsuit against Halliburton, which is based here in Houston, we’re talking with investigative reporter Pratap Chatterjee about a lawsuit that has just been brought against Halliburton. Pratap, this is not the first lawsuit brought by these contractors in Iraq. Can you talk about Blackwater and the famous situation in Fallujah that led to the deaths of four Blackwater workers and how it compares to this lawsuit?

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Well, Amy, the Blackwater employees were guarding a food convoy, we understand, which is subcontracted to a company in Kuwait called Regency which is then subcontracted to a company in Germany called ESS, which is then subcontracted to Halliburton, so essentially they were actually working for Halliburton also. And the difference is these men were actually supposed to be in danger, that was their job and, in fact, they signed a waiver saying you cannot sue Halliburton if you get shot, permanently maimed, killed by fire munitions, falling aircraft, helicopter, sniper fire, land mines, artillery fire, rocket-propelled grenade, truck or car bomb, poisoning, civil uprising, terrorist activity, hand-to-hand combat, et cetera, so they’ve specifically, unlike the Halliburton employees, been told that they might get killed and, in fact, their job — they cannot sue for that. But what the lawyer, Dan Callahan, who’s also right here in California, is alleging is that the company took reckless risks with the lives of the employees and that they didn’t give them proper protection, sent them again into a place where they should not have gone, and so they are similar cases, but they’re different contracts. And, of course, the fallback of both the companies is going to be the Defense Based Compensation Act, which is a little bit like Workmen’s Comp and basically say, well, there’s an amount of money that you can be paid and since, in the Blackwater case, they’re not allowed to sue, and the Halliburton case the contract actually says, you know, they’re supposed to enter arbitration that, in fact, there’s worry that this might be tossed out of court. The key thing that both lawyers are going to try and argue, Ramon Lopez in the case of the Halliburton truck drivers and Dan Callahan in the case of the family of Blackwater employees is that these companies took unnecessary risks and, in fact, voided their contract, and therefore this should be admitted into court. The contract doesn’t allow them to do just about anything. So that’s sort of a key difference, and hopefully actually — one of the interesting things I think in this story we published is actually a contrast with a second story that we’re running about how the managers were living it up in the Hilton in Kuwait in these sort of luxury resorts with swimming pools and taking million dollar bribes, and this is, I think, the dual lives of people at Halliburton is on the one hand the truck drivers and security people are out there on the forefront and they risk their lives and not even for that much money. On the other hand, the Halliburton people themselves, the managers, the senior managers, they are doing very nicely out of this whole thing, thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Pratap Chatterjee. Where do you think the current lawsuit against Halliburton will go? What is the process now that has been filed?

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Well, the process of it is — this is the first lawsuit, and they expect at least a dozen or so other lawsuits to be filed in the next couple of weeks before the first anniversary of the actual incident, which is April 9, and the reason for that is in some jurisdictions at least there’s a statute of limitations, and the way — if you have a whole group of lawsuits, it often behooves the judge to, you know, consolidate them with a lot of these kinds of cases and look at them together and then, you know, the thing that happens automatically is if it’s admitted to court, which I believe it will be, it allows them to go into discovery. So it means the lawyers can get hold of internal documents that show what happened on that particular day, and that should be very, very interesting. It’s a little like when a parallel lawsuit is served, you know, I guess, the ACLU suing the — Rumsfeld and people and finding all these internal documents about what they were doing, the latest being today a memo by General Sanchez saying you can torture the prisoners, you know, use stress positions. So these are the kind of documents they’re going to be looking for. Now, the judge could say, sorry, the contract is in order, and this is not enough to merit going forward and dismiss it, but then you can go to an appeals court, so it could take a while.

AMY GOODMAN: Pratap Chatterjee, investigative reporter with Pratap, I would like you to stay on the line, as we turn now to our next story, because we would like to get comment from you, being that you are really one of the leading reporters in this country looking at military and civilian contractors now in Iraq.

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