February 15, 2012 / 4:35 AM / 8 years ago

U.S. court dismisses Puerto Ricans' suit over arms testing

(Reuters) - Puerto Rican residents lost a bid on Tuesday to force the U.S. government to recognize the health effects on the local population of testing of weapons and experimenting with chemicals on the island of Vieques for decades.

A U.S. appeals court in Boston ruled that the federal government has immunity from any lawsuit over its actions.

For about six decades after World War II, the U.S. Navy used a portion of Vieques as a weapons-testing ground and firing range, detonating bombs and experimenting with chemicals from napalm to Agent Orange and depleted uranium. The military abandoned the base in 2003 under political pressure.

Juanita Sanchez, a resident of the island, sued on behalf of her daughter and some 7,000 others in 2007. The suit accused the U.S. military of causing illnesses among inhabitants, including a 30 percent higher cancer rate compared to Puerto Rico’s main island.

But the appeals court agreed with a lower court that had dismiss the case. Courts should be cautious about interfering with the exercise of military authority, Chief Judge Sandra Lynch wrote on behalf of two members of the three-judge panel.

The third judge, Juan Torruella, who comes from Puerto Rico, issued a vehement dissent. The government was aware of the toxic impact of its activities in 1979, he wrote. Its decision not to warn residents was not an exercise of judgment entitled to immunity, he added.

“Nowhere does the medieval concept of ‘the King can do no wrong’ underlying the doctrine of sovereign immunity sound more hollow and abusive than when an imperial power applies it to a group of helpless subjects. This cannot be a proper role for the United States of America,” Torruella wrote.

All three judges agreed that the suit raised serious health concerns that should be brought to the attention of Congress. The opinion included an instruction for the court clerk to submit copies of the decision to leaders of the House of Representatives and Senate.

“Even the majority recognized the individuals here have not been well-treated,” said Carter Phillips, the lawyer who represented the Vieques residents.

Charles Miller, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, declined to comment on the litigation.

Editing by Greg McCune

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