A burn pit at Balad Air Base, Iraq, in 2008.

A burn pit at Balad Air Base, Iraq, in 2008. (Michael Gisick/Stars and Stripes)

Government contractor KBR has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear arguments in a collection of class-action and individual lawsuits alleging that KBR and former parent company Halliburton acted negligently when operating the burn pits for the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, exposing troops to toxic fumes and pollutants, the Military Times reported Thursday.

According to the report, Houston-based KBR is arguing that the cases — reportedly 57 in all, with hundreds of plaintiffs — should be heard by the high court because they address issues of constitutional law on combatant activities and contract support.

“In Vietnam, people who were drafted, they drove the trucks, they did the laundry, cooked the food — all the things that have been outsourced by the Army were done by soldiers,” KBR counsel Mark Lowes told the Times. “I don’t see us ever going back [to that]. Contractors are going to be tied to the military from here on out, and it behooves the court to tell us how that relationship is going to work.”

Last year, a U.S. District Court judge in Maryland dismissed the suits, affirming KBR’s defense that it deserved the same protection as the U.S. government from litigation stemming from injuries in war zones.

But a three-judge panel from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., disagreed, ruling that the lawsuits could continue because KBR had not sufficiently demonstrated it was acting under military orders specifically during burn pit operations or water treatment activities.

The judges concluded the cases need further exploration as to whether KBR should share the same immunity the military has from litigation over injuries in war zones.

Roughly 10,000 petitions are filed with the Supreme Court each year, and the court elects to hear 75 to 80 cases.

Plaintiffs in these cases say the smoke produced by the open-air burn pits contained toxins such as dioxin and volatile organic compounds that have made them sick, causing respiratory illnesses, neurological disorders and cancer.

They also charge that KBR violated military orders in performing water treatment services, causing troops to fall ill.

The Supreme Court would likely announce in June or October whether it will hear the cases, the Times noted. If it declines, they will continue to be considered in the Maryland U.S. District Court.

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