Sunday, January 21, 2007

For war zone workers, a new fight

Some US firms deny injury claims

WASHINGTON -- US companies employing civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan have refused to settle workers' compensation and medical benefit claims for hundreds of war-zone injuries that range from back pain to post-traumatic stress.

A Globe review of rulings by administrative judges that resolve disputed claims found that Halliburton Co., DynCorp International, and other US contractors have been ordered to pay millions of dollars in compensation to workers whose claims they initially denied. In some cases, the companies had fought the claims for years even though their own doctors agreed that a worker had been injured.

Judges ruled in favor of the employee three times as often as they ruled for the companies, according to the review.

The cases offer a rare glimpse into the trauma endured by civilian contractor workers in combat and the often difficult struggle for benefits that they face when they return home.

One truck driver who earned $87,000 a year in Iraq was forced to live on food stamps after he hurt his back in an accident in his truck and Halliburton cut off his workers' compensation payments.

A construction foreman in Iraq who earned $2,583 a week was forced to live in his car as he fought for medical care and workers' compensation. Halliburton had sent him home to receive medical treatment after a mortar attack, but then cut off his pay and failed to cover doctors' visits.

The Globe examined the records of 113 contested cases that eventually went before the Office of Administrative Law Judges in the US Department of Labor. In 37 of the cases, the workers won outright. In 65 cases, companies settled the claims, often agreeing to pay tens of thousands of dollars or more in additional benefits. Only 11 employees' claims were turned down by judges.

These cases represent a small fraction of the more than 13,000 insurance claims that have been filed by workers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. The vast majority of cases are resolved when employees file required paperwork or during private mediation between the companies and employees overseen by the Department of Labor. But in hundreds of cases, the companies refused to settle, arguing that workers were not injured on the job or that they were asking for too much money.

Unresolved disputes are sent before administrative judges that hold hearings around the country. A search of the database of cases identified 113 that had been decided so far.

Lawyers for the workers say the cases prove that companies are denying claims they should have quickly paid. They also say the system that handles contractor-employee claims has become backlogged and outdated as an unprecedented number of private employees in Iraq and Afghanistan fill jobs previously performed by the military.

"I think the system is just overwhelmed," said Gary Pitts , a Houston lawyer who represents about 200 contractor employees who worked in Afghanistan and Iraq. Pitts said the law should be changed so that the contractors suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome are treated at veterans hospitals rather than by civilian doctors.

Chris Winans , a spokesman for AIG, the insurance company that handles Halliburton's overseas claims, acknowledged that it is often more difficult and time-consuming to investigate injuries that happened in a war zone. But he said the fact that only a small percentage of cases end up before a judge shows that the system works.

"The vast majority of workers compensation claims -- much more than 90 percent -- are paid when the appropriate documentation is received," he said, adding that the rate of payment for overseas claims was very similar to that of domestic claims.

Winans also said it is common for judges to give employees the benefit of the doubt in both foreign and domestic workers' compensation cases.

The workers' compensation system for contractors was set up in 1941, when Congress passed the Defense Base Act, which required all companies working for the US government to purchase insurance for their employees working abroad. The federal government reimburses insurance companies for injuries due to hostile action.

The Department of Labor used to see only a handful of cases each year, but the number of private contractor employees working on bases overseas has grown exponentially, from a few thousand to more than 100,000. Now the Labor Department handles about 1,000 cases per month.

It took Robert Purcella nearly two years to win back his workers' compensation benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder and physical injuries, during which time he had to sell his car and move in with his mother.

Purcella, a truck driver from Texas, had his windows blown out in four attacks in Iraq from September 2003 until March 2004. During one attack, a robber tried to pull him from the truck, and he was forced to kill the man with a hammer, "cracking his skull wide open," the ruling in his case states.

The judge also stated that Purcella was instructed by the military not to stop his truck under any circumstances and he "on occasion . . . ran over civilians as they attempted to stop the convoy."

Purcella was eventually diagnosed with "combat fatigue" and sent home after he reported additional injuries from a car accident that he said injured his shoulders and an eye. He filed a workers' compensation claim for all of those.

His workers' compensation checks abruptly stopped coming after a doctor hired by AIG found that he suffered from a congenital eye problem, not an eye injury, even though the doctor agreed that he had difficulty holding down a job because of the trauma that he had experienced, according to the documents.

The judges' rulings also detail the case of Samuel Walker , who won his case against Halliburton. Walker was burned on his hands and face during a suicide bombing on a military base in Iraq. Walker was initially refused treatment because his wounds were not life-threatening, a judge recounted in his ruling. Halliburton then prevented Walker and four other wounded employees from leaving the base to seek treatment on their own, because the company was understaffed.

After a television reporter threatened to publicize their story, the five were sent home, but were never given instructions on how to receive medical care in the United States, according to the ruling. It took months for him to find a doctor who would agree to treat him and who was also acceptable to Halliburton.

One pending claim is that of Robert Rowe, an Ohio truck driver who was shot in Iraq in August 2004. Rowe says it took him months of phone calls to Halliburton and AIG after his return to the United States to arrange for needed surgery to repair his leg. Ultimately, he said, AIG told him it would not compensate him because he did not have enough documentation and because they alleged that he had quit his job.

Rowe now has a lawyer and is fighting for compensation, but says he has been evicted. He said all he received in worker's compensation was a check for $386.

To see the judgments in these cases, go to and under docket search type in LDA in the middle search field.


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