Appeals court tosses 2 Abu Ghraib suits

RICHMOND, Va. — A federal appeals court on Wednesday dismissed two lawsuits by former Iraqi detainees who claimed civilian interrogators and translators participated in their torture at the Abu Ghraib prison.

In a 2-1 decision, a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the state law claims against contractors CACI International Inc. and L-3 Services, formerly Titan Corp., are pre-empted by federal authority to manage a war.

“This case involves allegations of misconduct in connection with the essentially military task of interrogation in a war zone military prison by contractors working in close collaboration with the military,” Judge Paul V. Niemeyer wrote in the majority opinion. He was joined by Judge Dennis Shedd, in the CACI case.

“We hold that under these circumstances, where a civilian contractor is integrated into wartime combatant activities over which the military broadly retrains command authority, tort claims arising out of the contractors’ engagement in such activities are pre-empted.”

In the CACI case, four Iraqi detainees claimed that they were tortured by the company’s interrogators as well as military personnel at Abu Ghraib, where photos of detainee abuse that became public in 2004 shocked the national conscience. The appeals court’s ruling reversed a decision by U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee in Alexandria, Va., who had refused to dismiss the case.

The panel majority adopted a similar rationale in dismissing the lawsuit filed by 72 Iraqis against L-3 for their treatment at Abu Ghraib and other U.S.-run prisons in Iraq. That ruling overturned a decision by U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte in Greenbelt, Md.

Susan L. Burke, an attorney for the detainees in both cases, said she was disappointed with the rulings and would probably ask for a rehearing before the full appeals court.

“The fight continues,” she said.

CACI’s lawyer, William Koegel, was pleased with the decision in his case.

“I think they got it right,” he said. “It’s a complex and developing area of the law.”

In a dissent, Judge Robert King wrote that the cases were not ripe for appeal because the lower courts had left too many issues unresolved.

The Richmond-based appeals court was guided in part by a Sept. 11, 2009, decision by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals affirming the dismissal of another lawsuit filed by 250 Iraqi plaintiffs against CACI and L-3. That also was a 2-1 decision, and King agreed with much of the dissent in that case.

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year declined to review that decision.

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