Washington -- The families of four defense contractors killed last year in Iraq are suing their employer, claiming the company, in an effort to increase profits, did not provide them with armored vehicles and other equipment as had been promised.
"The (company's) motivation was basically greed," family attorney Dan Callahan told United Press International. "They saved $1.5 million by not buying those (armored) vehicles."
The complaint -- filed in a Raleigh, N.C., court last week -- alleges that Blackwater Security Consulting LLC sent the men into hostile territory in unarmored vehicles with only light weapons and without even a map, contrary to promises in the men's contracts.
Repeated telephone messages at the company's Moyock, N.C., headquarters requesting comment went unanswered.
The suit seeks unspecified damages for wrongful death and experts warn it could set off a flood of litigation against private military contractors, whose unprecedented role in the Iraq conflict is opening unexplored legal territory.
Scott Helvenston, Mike Teague, Jerry Zovko, and Wesley Batalona were killed March 31, 2004, by insurgents who attacked a convoy moving through the center of Fallujah, which was a hotbed of insurgent activity. The men's bodies were burned and beaten, and two of them were hanged from a bridge in the town.
Estimates vary on the number of private military contractors in Iraq, depending on which groups of workers are included.
"No one knows for sure how many are there," said David Isenberg of the British American Security information Council.
In a report on military contractors he wrote last year, Isenberg estimated that there were perhaps 6,000 westerners doing armed security work of the same kind as the four men killed in Fallujah.
Yet as many as 170 have been killed, according to Larry Korb, a Reagan-era defense official and now a scholar at the Center for American Progress.
The death toll, Korb added, means that the lawsuit is a potential "Pandora's box" for the industry. "There could be a slew of similar lawsuits," he said.
Isenberg agreed: "If these allegations are true, Blackwater is guilty of the most egregious conduct. But I'm sure they are not the worst security contractor operating in Iraq. My intuition is there are a great many more stories like this out there, and there is a good likelihood more cases will follow if this one makes any progress."
Indeed, Blackwater, founded in 1996 by billionaire former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, has a reputation as highly professional.
Korb says that part of the problem is that the companies are now operating in uncharted territory.
"Their role was supposed to be after the war, in a relatively benign environment like that in the Balkans," he explained. "No one imagined that they would be pitched into the kind of conflict we have in Iraq."
As a result there are a lot of unanswered questions, Korb said. "When you or I go to work, we are operating in a well-established legal environment. There are labor laws, there is (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration)."
"For these companies," he added, "It isn't clear what the rules are yet. They're not spelled out."
The suit alleges that Blackwater promised the men that they would be working in six-man teams in armored vehicles equipped with heavy machine guns and that they would be allowed three weeks to orient themselves in country before being sent out.
In addition, the suit says, the terms of the men's contracts required that a risk assessment be conducted on every job before it was assigned.
None of the promises were kept, the suit says, alleging that the company created a risk assessment after the men's deaths in an effort to conceal their failure.
There was no official investigation of the incident by the military or the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which then ruled the country. Paul Bremer, the authority's head, and the effective U.S. proconsul in Iraq until he ceded power to the interim government led by Iyad Allawi, was guarded by Blackwater, which has hundreds of contractors in Iraq.
The company conducted an internal inquiry and produced an after-action report. The Charlotte News and Observer reported last year that they blamed a unit of the U.S.-trained Iraqi Civil Defense Corps for leading the convoy into an ambush.
But many contractors -- including some who say they knew one or more of the four men -- pour scorn on the idea that they would ever have trusted local forces to lead their way. Theories, stories and rumors have circulated about the incident on bulletin boards and e-mail lists frequented by former military personnel.
"We still don't know the whole story of what happened," said Isenberg.
"I expect the case will be very interesting," he added, explaining that documents subject to disclosure in the case might include some the company would not like to see made public.
"These companies tend to be rather secretive," he said. "I expect (Blackwater) will spend a lot of money to try and make this go away."
Through their lawyers, the men's families said they were trying to make a larger point with their suit.
"We are doing this to win compensation for the families for their terrible loss ... and to send a message to other companies working in Iraq not to treat their contractors in this disgraceful way," said Callahan.