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Driving Into Danger

A Trucker's Family Sues Halliburton

by Pratap ChatterjeeSpecial to CorpWatch
March 29th, 2005

The daughter of a truck driver has brought a federal lawsuit today against Halliburton, the primary contractor providing logistical support to the military in Iraq. April Johnson is seeking redress for the wrongful death of her father, Tony Johnson, who was killed almost one year ago near Baghdad International Airport. This is the first of several lawsuits by truck drivers and their families against the Houston-based company.

Johnson, a truck driver from Riverside, California, was one of 19 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.

April Johnson told CorpWatch that she and her mother want the public to understand that the company misled the drivers about the working conditions and failed to protect their lives.

“What Halliburton did was criminal and the public needs to know," says Kim Johnson, April's mother and the victim's ex-wife. "They took good, honest Americans and didn't tell them that if they didn't do a mission, they would lose their job. They were told that at the slightest hint of danger, they could leave and come home.”

"It is our opinion, based on our investigations, that Halliburton's management has systematically, intentionally, and fraudulently misrepresented the true nature of their civilian employees' duties," says Ramon Rossi Lopez, the trial lawyer representing the Johnsons in federal court in Santa Ana, California. "Simply put, Halliburton intentionally placed its employees in harm's way and received lucrative payment for a private, unarmed military force."

Lopez is the managing partner of Lopez, Hodes, Restaino, Milman & Skikos, a law firm based in Newport Beach, California. He has made a career out of representing clients suing multinationals over defective products such as silicone breast implants and diet pills. He has also worked on lawsuits against doctors and hospitals for failing to diagnose medical problems such as cancer. In one well known case, Lopez represented the families of victims of the Pan Am plane crash in Lockerbie, Scotland.

Hamill Convoy

Halliburton has already collected over $10 billion in return for doing just about every logistical support activity that the military needs in Iraq -- from digging toilets and cutting soldier's hair to preparing food and delivering mail. Altogether, an estimated 61 of their employees have been killed. This is out of a workforce that numbers approximately 24,000, three-quarters of whom are not from Iraq.

Thousands of these employees are poor Americans from small towns who are lured by the promise of making up to $100,000 a year, tax-free. The company hires them through a Cayman Island-based subsidiary named Service Employees International, then flies them to Houston and Kuwait for training. Eventually, many -- like Tony Johnson -- end up working alongside the military in camps throughout Iraq.

The date of Johnson's death -- April 9, 2004 -- was quite possibly the most dangerous day to travel in Iraq so far. On that day, Moqtada al Sadr, the fiery young Shia leader, had ordered his militia, the Mahdi army, to attack anyone who left their homes. Less than a week prior, the Mahdi had seized control of several cities in the south, just as the United States had started the first bombing of Fallujah.

This correspondent, who was in Iraq at that time, recalls numerous heavily armored tanks being deployed near the Palestine and Sheraton hotels, where many Halliburton employees stay in Baghdad. Overnight, miles of razor-sharp concertina and barbed wire had been wrapped around every road intersection to block anyone from coming within half a mile of the hotels. Every half hour, a voice would come on over loudspeakers, warning people to stay indoors.

Indeed, the United States military had officially declared all roads too dangerous to travel for civilian convoys that day, via a color-coded system that defines the threat levels in Iraq. "Black" means that all traffic on the roads is prohibited, "red" means that a convoy can be deployed in the event of an emergency, "amber" means that the road is clear, while "green" indicates that there is no threat at all.

Just one day earlier, a Halliburton convoy had been attacked and on this day, two convoys had already turned back because of the violence on the road. Despite the fact that the threat level had been raised to "black" that weekend, Halliburton officials ordered the 19 uneasy men to take to the road to deliver fuel to the airport.

That morning, Johnson was told to join a convoy -- led by Thomas Hamill -- to transport 125,000 gallons of jet fuel. The group was very poorly organized, according to interviews with the men who survived. They were driving unarmored military vehicles rather than their normal white civilian trucks, making them an open target. The truckers say that the company dispatched the men on a route that none of them were familiar with, despite the fact that another company convoy traveling the same route had been hit earlier in the day, losing several vehicles.

Profile of a Driver

Tony Johnson was born in Indiana but lived most of his life in Riverside, California. When he was 15, he learned the masonry trade and at the age of 22 he met his future wife, Kim, through a common friend. She was 18, from Long Beach, and had graduated from high school in nearby Irvine. "He was very shy but very honest and I can say, he had the most incredible work ethic of any man I have ever known," said Kim.

She fell in love. Eight months later, the two got married and their daughter April was born just a few months later. They saved $10,000 and put a down payment on their first house back in Riverside in 1981.

While Tony worked days as a mason, Kim worked as a waitress at night. Then Kim went back to school and became a nurse in 1988. "He was so proud of me," she recalls. Soon, Tony became a contractor and started his own business, Johnson Masonry Inc. "We never even advertised the business. He did the most beautiful work with integrity and passion, so he always had work."

In 1998, the couple grew apart and Tony moved out. At the same time, he decided he needed a new career. He went to truck driving school and then got several jobs driving for commercial truck companies. In 2002, his scrupulous attention to safety won him an award as Driver of the Year for a company called Martin Transportation.

In late 2003, Tony made a deal with April. If she moved in with him and took care of his house, he would pay the mortgage and bills, so she could save money. When she saved $10,000, he said he would match the money so that she could make a down payment on a place of her own.

In early December, Tony emailed his resume to a woman named Nicky Williams at Halliburton. The next morning at 7am he got a call from the company offering him a job, so he made immediate plans to leave.

Recalls April: "In early December, we went to the Olive Garden to make plans for me to move back in. While we were eating, he said he was planning to go to Iraq. He was very excited, he'd always wanted to be in the military and he kept talking about how he's be able to stay in the barracks.

"I was in shock," she says. "But I could see how much he wanted it, so I didn't talk him out of it."

April moved right back in and the two of them spent 15 days together making plans. For the first time in five years, father and daughter shared Christmas. Over the next few days, April was as supportive as possible, helping him pack and buying her dad supplies for his trip.

On Sunday morning, December 28, April drove Tony to Ontario airport. He flew to Houston for two weeks for training, where he talked to his daughter and ex-wife every day. At first, Kim says she was happy for him, but by time day he left for Kuwait, she'd started to worry.

"He was very nervous," she remembers. "He tried to keep his nose clean, so he could pass all the tests and go to Iraq." She spoke to him as he was heading to the airport.

April spoke to her dad a couple of times over his next eleven weeks in Iraq. They were mainly snatches of conversation lasting only a couple of minutes at a time. On April 8th, they had a good 20 minute conversation. She says he played down the danger. She asked him if he could hear bombs going off. He said, "occasionally."

The next time the phone rang, it was Jenny Brooks from KBR. April was puzzled at first; she'd never heard of KBR. Brooks asked her for Tony's social security number and date of birth, which puzzled her also. "Shows how incompetent they were," says Kim.

Two days later, Brooks called again with bad news, saying Tony was definitely missing. The next two weeks were agony. Then, on April 22nd, they asked April to give a DNA sample. On April 26th, a man named David Coles arrived from Halliburton, with the bad news. They had found four vertebrae and a piece of muscle that matched April's DNA. Tony was dead.

On May 8th, the Johnsons held a funeral for Tony. Janet Brooks and David Coles flew out and, at the funeral, they handed mother and daughter a check for $50,000. "No strings attached," they promised. It said it came from the Halliburton asbestos workers' compensation fund.

April still cannot remember her dad without choking up. "I was Daddy's girl. I always wanted to be with him. I remember our river trips, the jet skis, the water skis and tubing, dirt bike rides, off-roading in his truck."

Tony Johnson is also survived by his parents in South Dakota, three sisters, one brother, and Randy Byler, his neighbor and occasional companion on long-haul truck routes.

The Military Weighs In

Ray Stannard, another member of the convoy, recalls that the men left the base at about 10:40 am. Shortly after noon, they arrived in the vicinity of the Abu Ghraib prison, where the attack took place. Stannard, a former Marine from El Paso, Texas, says that they could see trucks from the previous convoy still burning, but it was too late to turn back. When the shooting began, he ran into a group of soldiers who were furious that the convoy was driving through the area, yelling at him: "What the hell are you doing here? We have been under heavy attack for 48 hours!"

Several trucks were hit and had to be abandoned while the panicked, surviving drivers radioed the military for help. Eventually, eleven of them, including Stannard, made it to the airport, where they were taken to a makeshift hospital. Of 43 men on the convoy, including the military escorts, 25 were killed or injured, making it the deadliest incident involving American contractors in the war in Iraq. Hamill, the convoy leader, was kidnapped but later escaped and wrote a book about his exploits.

Halliburton quickly arranged for the surviving men to be flown out of the country, to the regional headquarters at the Khalifa Hilton in Kuwait. There they were treated to a fancy private dinner and awarded specially inscribed gold coins for their bravery under fire by Tom Crum, the Middle East chief for Halliburton's Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) subsidiary. Over the last ten months, the military has compiled its own report on the events. Completed last month, the report was written by Colonel Gary Bunch, the commander of the 172nd Corps Support Group, which escorted the Hamill convoy. The 280-page document suggests that the military and Halliburton failed to communicate properly.

"If the information was properly sent to subordinate units, actions could have been taken to potentially minimize impact of hostile engagement,” the report states.

At least some of blame does likely lie with the military. For example, a U.S. soldier, who approved the route, is reported to have changed his mind minutes later. He then sent an e-mail advising that the road was closed, but accidentally sent the e-mail to himself, so it never reached the truckers.

Also, a military order issued on the morning of the convoy's departure recommended a minimum ratio of one Army soldier to accompany every two trucks. But the April 9 convoy had just six soldiers among 19 trucks.

Wrongful Death Lawsuits

This is the second major wrongful death lawsuit against the companies that were hired to rebuild Iraq and supply the American-led military coalition that has essentially controlled the country for almost two years. A successful outcome could trigger dozens of new lawsuits from families of deceased contractors and those injured in Iraq, including Iraqi nationals caught in the crossfire.

The first lawsuit was brought against Blackwater Security Services by the families of four contractors killed in an ambush in Fallujah in March 2004. (The Blackwater contractors were working on a sub-contract that was ultimately controlled by Halliburton.)

Filed in North Carolina, where Blackwater is based, by California attorney Dan Callahan, on behalf of the families of the four men - Wesley Batalona, Scott Helvenston, Michael Teague and Jerry Zovko - the first case may set an important precedent for the Halliburton employees. But there are important differences between the two lawsuits.

The Halliburton employees were told that they would be protected by the military. Several truckers, who worked for Halliburton in Iraq at the time, told CorpWatch that company recruiters informed them that the few civilian deaths that had occurred had been the result of "their own tomfoolery." The drivers were under the impression that in the case of a dangerous situation, the military would rescue them.

One the other hand, the Blackwater men -- all military veterans -- were paid to provide security from hostile fire. Indeed their contract spelled out the dangers in graphic detail. Accordingly, the following list of events were possible: "being shot, permanently maimed and/or killed by a firearm or munitions, falling aircraft or helicopters, sniper fire, land mine, artillery fire, rocket-propelled grenade, truck or car bomb, poisoning, civil uprising, terrorist activity, hand-to-hand combat…etc."

The Blackwater workers also signed a release giving up most of their rights (as well as those of their families and estates) to sue Blackwater if something bad were to happen. However, the lawyers have argued that the releases do not allow the company to take "reckless" risks with the lives of their employees.

The Halliburton workers did not sign such a waiver but their contract requires them to enter arbitration, rather than sue the company. Normally, contractors are eligible for compensation under the Defense Bases Act, the military equivalent of workers' compensation insurance.

Halliburton’s response

“Nearly a year later, KBR remains deeply saddened by this tragedy," wrote Beverly Scippa, a company spokeswoman, in an email response to CorpWatch queries about the lawsuit. "KBR has cooperated fully as the Army has spent the past year investigating these attacks, and we will continue to do everything we can to help piece together the events of April 9.” She continued, “KBR representatives met face-to-face with the next of kin of those employees who were killed to advise them of their loved one’s death, and the KBR representatives stayed with the families while they gathered other supportive resources around themselves.”

“While we do not discuss potential lawsuits, I can give you information regarding the convoy,” she added.

Ultimately, Scippa said, the U.S. military has command and control of all convoys in Iraq. “It is not unusual for the military to change a route several times before a convoy departs, based on the best and most current information available from its own intelligence briefings and assessments.”

“KBR does have the right to refuse a mission and, because KBR’s primary concern is for the safety and security of all personnel, we have exercised that right on numerous occasions, both before and after April 9. KBR can refuse a mission if a convoy is improperly constructed, if the security provided by the military does not meet the established criteria, or if route conditions are not within guidelines. When KBR expresses concern with a mission, we work with the military until we are satisfied that the level of security is appropriate to meet the threat conditions so that convoys can proceed.”

Scippa also noted that following the April 9, 2004 attack, KBR and the Army jointly agreed to suspend convoy movements until the security requirements could be reassessed and additional security measures enacted. “To avoid jeopardizing future convoys, we will not detail the specific security measures that are currently in place,” she wrote.