RALEIGH, N.C. — The embattled government contractor formerly known as Blackwater asked a federal judge Thursday to dismiss a lawsuit connected to the deadly 2007 shootings of Iraqi civilians in Baghdad.
Charlotte law firm Lewis & Roberts is representing six victims or their families in what may be their last chance to hold the Moyock, N.C.-based company liable for their suffering.
Judge Terrence Boyle listened to arguments for more than two hours as this central question emerged: Is the U.S. government accountable for the actions of contractors in war zones?
Attorneys for Blackwater, now called Xe, said the company has immunity from lawsuits because its employees were working for the U.S. government.
They also asked the judge to make the government the defendant in the case instead of Blackwater. A favorable ruling on that motion would effectively scuttle the suit because the federal government has immunity from litigation in such cases.
In questioning attorneys, Boyle said the suit raises issues about the use of private contractors in war.
"The essence of this is what is it that you can contract away and what can't you contract away," Boyle said.
He did not issue a ruling Thursday.
Blackwater received hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts in Iraq, where its duties included guarding U.S. State Department employees. The company eventually lost its license to work in Iraq amid allegations of misconduct by its employees.
The wrongful death suit stems from the Sept. 16, 2007 Nisoor Square incident in which 30 civilians were killed or injured. Five Blackwater guards were accused in 14 deaths. Among the victims was 9-year-old Ali Kinani, who was fatally shot in the head as his father drove near a roadblock.
Charlotte attorneys Gary Mauney and Paul Dickinson represent his family and the others in the civil suit. Their SouthPark firm is seeking damages in excess of $10,000 on behalf of Ali Kinani and two men, ages 25 and 77, who also died.
They also represent three other victims who claim they were injured in the shooting. A former Blackwater guard, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter, said in court documents that a convoy from Blackwater went to Nisoor Square outside the secured Green Zone to help after reports of a nearby car bomb.
Blackwater maintained that its guards shot in self-defense. The suit claims they were unprovoked.
Other court cases connected to the incident have been settled or fallen apart. A year ago, a federal judge dismissed manslaughter charges against five Blackwater guards. The federal Department of Justice has appealed the ruling.
In January, another group of survivors and victims' families settled a civil suit against the company.
On Thursday, attorneys debated whether Blackwater or the U.S. government should be held accountable for the shooting. Unlike other contractors, Blackwater performed duties so sensitive in nature they required the kind of oversight the government typically provides its own employees, attorney Andrew Pincus said.
Courts have already ruled that federal employees are exempt from lawsuits in such cases.
"This isn't food service, where we can sort of leave it to the chefs," Pincus said. Lawyers for both the plaintiffs and the government disputed that, countering that Blackwater guards were not under orders to go to Nisoor Square.
They said the company oversaw day-to-day operations for its employees. Boyle, the judge, acknowledged that the issue that surfaced during the hearing resonated beyond the courtroom.
"If the government can cut the cord and let that drift off into space, that's one world," he said. "But it's a different world if the government has to be held accountable."