U.S. Supreme Court justices seemed skeptical of arguments that the 1942 Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act should cover civil, as well as criminal, offenses, during Jan. 13 oral arguments in a case involving contractor Kellogg Brown & Root. If the court rules that the law does apply to civil offenses, federal contractors, including construction companies, could face more liability.

The case centers on allegations by Benjamin Carter, an ex-KBR employee, that the company fraudulently billed the government for services at an Iraq water-purification plant in 2005 that were never performed. Carter filed a civil lawsuit under the False Claims Act in 2006, but the claims were dismissed for technical reasons, and the six-year statute of limitations ran out.

The key question in the case, KBR v. Carter, is whether suspension of statutes of limitation when the U.S. is at war is meant to apply to civil action, as Carter contends, or only to criminal offenses. An appeals court ruled in Carter's favor; KBR appealed to the Supreme Court.

Justice Antonin Scalia told Carter's attorney, David S. Stone, that when an old law with a clear criminal focus is expanded later, it seems that "the burden … is on you to show that it's been changed from the criminal to the civil." Stone said that, soon after the suspension of limitations act was changed in 1944 to include "any" before "offenses," nine of 10 district courts held that it did apply to civil cases.