National Public Radio coverage of Iraq vets’ exposure to sodium dichromate

Here is a link to NPR’s story on National Guard soldiers’ exposures to sodium dichromate while serving in Iraq. The story focuses on the West Virginia National Guard, though it also mentions that soldiers from Indiana and Oregon were exposed to the same chemicals at the same site.

Yesterday, the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs convened a hearing on the military’s response to the exposure. This comes quick on the heels of the Department of Defense Inspector General’s announcement of an investigation into the handling of these matters.

In Oregon, our efforts on behalf of the Oregon Guard troops continue in the U.S. District Court case of Bixby v. KBR.  Onward.

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West Virginia National Guard troops file suit against KBR for exposure injuries

Add the West Virginia National Guard troops to the list of Iraqi war vets exposed to chemicals while guarding KBR contractors at Qarmat Ali in 2003. Here is a recent news story about the filing on behalf of the West Virginia soldiers.

Rocky Bixby and I met a few of the West Virginia Guard soldiers when Rocky and I ventured back to Washington D.C. for Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearings in August. I was struck at the time that the stories of representatives of the Indiana and West Virginia Guard were very similar to Rocky Bixby’s story.

As with the cases in Indiana and Oregon, we’ll be following the developments in the West Virginia case.

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Court fee increases threaten middle and low-income Oregonians access to civil justice system

The Oregon budget crisis created a number of problems and many are still coming home to roost. Now the bill has come for the civil justice system.

Effective yesterday, the Oregon Judicial Department implemented new fees for filing lawsuits and routine court matters. Here’s a report in today’s Oregonian.

The new fee system is confusing, in that it’s hard to calculate how much it costs to file a lawsuit. Filing fees morph and shift based upon the amount of money at issue in the case, the number of plaintiffs (people suing) and the number of defendants (people being sued).

The reality is that the new fee increases will have profound impacts, including:

  • For middle- and low-income Oregonians, a day in court will become an unaffordable luxury
  • For attorneys representing people, risks of missing deadlines because fees weren’t paid on time and filings were rejected
  • For attorneys handling contingent fee cases: limiting representation to affluent or limiting who can handle these cases to affluent attorneys who can afford the increased fees
  • For our beloved Oregon, doling out justice based on ability to pay.

It’s that last one that rankles me. Look, it would have been easy to limit my work to rich clients. There’s nothing like the smug security of having corporate clients who pay by the hour for talent.  You get paid as you go. No pay, no go.

But some of us chose a different route because we were committed to a view that justice shouldn’t be limited to corporations that have the money to pay for expensive law firms. For those of us who heard and heeded the different drumbeat, we found ways to answer the call by working on contingent fee cases or finding our way to public interest jobs. That’s how Oregon consumers find skilled and capable representation.

These new fees will make it harder to handle cases.  In addition to higher filing fees, we now have a pay as you go system. Want to file a motion? Pay another filing fee. Need a judge to sign an order? You’re going to have to pay for that. We’re going to wind up in a system in which only the affluent can afford to go forward. Those without means or a very affluent attorney who can front all costs will be turned away.

Some of my colleagues want to blame the Oregon legislature and the Oregon judicial branch for turning to this model of paying for access to justice. Sorry, but it’s not that simple. The reality is that Oregon has suffered mightily in this massive recession and our tax base that relies heavily on income taxes has eroded with the profound increase in unemployment. We lack political will and wisdom to understand that public goods like education, clean water and a civil justice system cost money. That means taxes. It is popular to bash politicians and more so to oppose taxes. All that is well and good and easy. Until you need the cops. Or good schools. Or your day in court.

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Pentagon inspector general to review Army’s handling of troops sodium dichromate exposures

As reported in The Oregonian, the Pentagon’s inspector general announced yesterday an investigation into U.S. troops exposures to sodium dichromate in Iraq in 2003. Reprint here at the Oregonlive website.  Kudos and appreciation to Julie Sullivan of The Oregonian. She grabbed this story early and hasn’t let go. It’s nice to be reminded of the importance of old-school journalists.

As noted in the linked article, I’m appreciative of our elected officials’ commitment to these issues. It’s a long road ahead for our vets. I’m betting that they will stay engaged.

Here’s why I say that. It’s pure supposition on my part, but I  imagine that Senator Wyden, Senator Merkley, Representative Schrader and state Sen. Shields share my motivation.

I can’t sit quietly and watch another generation of soldiers face the ravages of toxic exposures.  The Agent Orange stain of our Vietnam-era vets taught many of us that we must advocate for our soldiers.  This is especially true of those–like me–who did not serve in the armed forces.

So this is a positive step. We’ll watch and see and hope that the inspector general digs in to this horror. For the present, we’ll simply continue the efforts toward finding justice and protection for our vets and their families. They served and sacrificed. How we respond is a story that is still unfolding. I hope that when the story is written, all of us–the politicians, the lawyers, the journalists, and the citizens–can look back and say that we did our parts for our soldiers.

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Oregon National Guard vs KBR update: amended complaint

For those keeping track, we filed our amended complaint yesterday in Bixby, et al. v. KBR, Inc., et al., U.S.  District Court Case No. 3:09-CV-632-PK (D. Or.).  Here is a pdf of the amended complaint: plaintiffs-amended-complaint

The case arises out of exposure to sodium dichromate in Iraq in 2003. Oregon National Guard soldiers and others from Indiana, West Virginia, and the U.S. Army were exposed to toxic chemicals at the site while providing security for KBR workers.Sodium dichromate contains hexavalent chromium. It is extremely toxic.

In the meantime, we continue to receive calls and emails from current or former member of the Oregon National Guard who provided security at the Qarmat Ali facility. If you served there and are having health problems, feel free to contact me for more information about the lawsuit. It’s important that you understand that there are time limits on filing claims. If you qaulify to join the case and if you would like to pursue a claim, you must act to protect your rights.

Feel free to conatct me if I can be of further service or answer your questions.

Updated: 9 Oct 2009

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Patient safety lost in health care debate

Lots of noise going back and forth about health care reform, but one issue, which is the elephant in the room, is getting little coverage.

Back in 1999, the Institute of Medicine issued this report on the horrifying death toll caused by preventable medical errors. “Horrifying” isn’t over the top. We’re talking about 44,000-98,000 hospital deaths per year in U.S. hospitals caused by preventable medical errors. You would think those kinds of numbers would lead to instant action and a reduction, but the problem has gotten worse.

Kudos and appreciation to the Hearst news organization for an update. Unfortunately, it shows that 200,000 per year die from preventable medical errors. States, including Oregon,  have refused to pass mandatory hospital safety reporting laws.  Apparently, no one thinks that mandatory reporting of  preventable medical death information would change hospital practices.

The Oregonian ran with the story in its Saturday edition, but they somehow decided to leave it off of their website. That’s a shame, as they did a detailed local breakout.

So now we’re talking about health care reform. But for all the heat and light and jabber about government programs, single payers, “death panels,” and the like, no one is talking about reducing preventable medical harm.

So the better question is what about that elephant?

Why do we allow people seeking health care reform to demand limits on lawsuits when they refuse to talk about quality of care? With this level of deaths, why do we tolerate people complaining about “defensive medicine?”

If the medical and insurance industries want to hide errors, the one thing that must remain untouched is the right to trial by jury. Otherwise, we simply have an elephant in the room that will stomp another 200,000 people next year with no consequences. We need to be able to hold the medical and insurance industries accountable. And if the government will take no action, the jury is the next best thing.

Next time someone complains about malpractice cases, the practice of defensive medicine or frivolous lawsuits, ask them about the 200,000 deaths per year. If that number is too big, let’s break it down. It’s well over 500 people per day dead from preventable medical errors.  Wow.

The Hearst news system’s reporting at Dead By Mistake is timely, substantive and informative. In short, this is journalism at its best.

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Senate Democratic Policy Committee Hearings on Soldiers’ Exposures to Sodium Dichromate at Qarmat Ali

It was a chilling scene in Washington, D.C. earlier this week. The Senate Democratic Policy Committee held a two hour hearing on soldiers’ exposures to sodium dichromate at Qarmat Ali in 2003. Here is a link to the webcast of the hearing .

Oregon National Guard member Rocky Bixby represented the Oregon troops. I attended with Rocky.

Many people are owed thanks and recognition for their efforts., including all the senators who attended. Senator Dorgan, who chairs the committee, has been a force for change on this matter.  Senators Bayh, Rockefeller, Reid, Whitehouse, Udall, and Wyden also attended, each adding something important to the mix.

I wanted to particularly acknowledge Senator Wyden for taking time out of the pressing demands posed by health care reform. As well, Sen. Reid’s presence was particularly remarkable, as his leadership duties are demanding.

After the hearing, Senator Jeff Merkley made time to meet with Rocky Bixby. The meeting with Senator Merkley and his staff went well. It’s clear that they are concerned and motivated to help our injured soldiers. Rocky and I were so appreciative that Senator Merkley could make time to meet with Rocky and listen to his story.

Finally, I want to recognize the amazing staff of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. They did great work pulling together comprehensive proof presented at the hearing.

To our Oregon troops and clients, I can only say that the Oregon Senate delegation has made it clear by their words and deeds that they are behind you. And of course, that’s in addition to the Oregon Legislature, and Rep. Schrader and other members of Congress working on federal legislation.

To our state legislators and the Oregon Congressional delegation, I can say that our troops appreciate your words of encouragement and your efforts and kindness. They have a long haul ahead. We appreciate your help to date and hope that you can continue to find time and resources to assist the troops as this thing unfolds.

Listen to the hearing. It’s very disturbing. The men and women who served need our help. That’s why we’re in this thing against KBR.

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Early apology and compensation in medical error cases cuts costs

Here is a report on the positive benefits of an active apology policy in a large hospital system. This article reports on the experience at the University of Michigan Health System. It confirms what I’ve long suspected. By admitting errors, apologizing, and paying early compensation, the University of Michigan system has cut claim numbers and claim costs in half.

Wow! As an attorney who represents injured patients, I think this represents great news. While there’s a lot of talk radio heat about medical negligence cases, any attorney who has handled them will tell you a different stories. They’re tough and stressful cases for the patients and their families, not to mention for the lawyers. The medical liability industry has done a great job of digging in against legitimate claims. As a result, many claims with merit simply get turned away.

The other thing is that many patients simply want the one thing that the medical system won’t give them.  An apology is a powerful thing. But the medical liability industry has mistakenly concluded that apologizing is a bad idea. Talk about writing up an order for a lawsuit.

The U. of Michigan system provides a promising model. Maybe this really is an era of change?

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Mayor Adams’ former spokesman files suit

From Willamette Week comes this report that Mayor Adams former spokesman, Wade Nkrumah, filed suit in Multnomah County over statements made by Mayor Adams. According to the news report, Mayor Adams said that Nkrumah resigned because of the stress of the job.

This raises interesting issues in the area of defamation. Defamation claims arise when someone makes a false statement that injures your reputation. Some types of statements are so general or trifling that the court can dismiss a defamation claim when the false statement isn’t serious enough.

In legal talk, trivial statements are not defamatory. So one of the interesting battles in this case will be whether statements about Mr. Nkrumah’s ability to take stress qualify as defamatory.

I’m guessing that they will and should. After all, isn’t that a “he can’t take it” statement about Mr. Nkrumah’s ability to do his job? Doesn’t it really imply that he’s not up to snuff. I can certainly see him winning that issue. I’ve argued as much about similar statements made about a commercial pilot.

This has the potential to be one of those noteworthy cases. I’m sure that has nothing to do with Mayor Adams. Nothing at all.

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West Virginia National Guard members file hexavalent chromium injury case against KBR

Here is a news report on a recent filing by West Virginia National Guard soldiers against KBR for injury from hexavalent chromium while serving in Iraq. The West Virginia Guard soldiers were exposed to sodium dichromate at the same facility as Indiana and Oregon Guard soldiers.  Sodium dichromate contains hexavalent chromium, a toxic chemical that can cause cancer.

According to the linked news report, at least 125 West Virginia soldiers may have been exposed. According to the same source, KBR “‘did not knowingly harm the troops.’”

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