Law

Camp Lejeune Lawsuit: Peeling off the Litigious Layers

payout for Camp Lejeune

The US Federal government is facing one of the largest-ever mass torts in history for an act of gross negligence committed nearly four decades ago. The Marine Corps Base of North Carolina, Camp Lejeune, was found to be a site of major Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) contamination in 1982.

As per the historical report of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), three wells located at Hadnot Point, Tarawa Terrace, and Holcomb Boulevard contained hazardous chemicals like Trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene, vinyl chloride, and others leaked into the groundwater as by-products from an offsite dry-cleaning company.

All contaminated wells were shut down by February 1985, but what followed made this event the worst-ever public health crisis in US history. In this article, we will attempt to peel off the different layers of the Camp Lejeune litigation right from where it all started.  

Federal Government’s Litigation Consent after an Arduous Struggle

As the decades proceeded since the discovery of Camp Lejeune water contamination, new health injuries were reported among veterans and their families. As many as one million people (both military servicemen and civilians) were affected by the Camp’s toxic waters.

For instance – Jerry Ensminger, a retired military serviceman, lost his nine-year-old daughter, Janey Ensminger, in 1985 to leukemia caused by the toxic water. However, Ensminger did not know this until 1997, when the Federal government released a report stating that Camp Lejeune’s waters had been contaminated for nearly three decades.

At the time, no compensation provisions were made for military members or their families. The Obama administration passed the Camp Lejeune Family Act in 2012 to offer free healthcare to the victims. Over the years that followed, attempts were made to sue the Federal government, but they were dismissed by the US Supreme Court on the following grounds –

  • No clear list of the injuries associated with Camp Lejeune was available at the time. Studies were conducted later to determine the health repercussions.
  • The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) of 1946 had the Feres doctrine exception that barred active-duty military members (or their families) from suing the Federal government under any circumstances. When Carol Clendening, the widow of Gary Clendening, filed a lawsuit on behalf of her late husband (who succumbed to adult leukemia), her appeal was dismissed on grounds of Feres. This happened despite the Federal government admitting that Gary’s leukemia was a result of the Camp Lejeune waters.

Finally, the Federal government did drop its sovereign immunity (without any reservations) with the enactment of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act (CLJA) of August 2022. This Bill provided victims with a separate statute of limitations and cause of action, making it possible to seek government compensation for their physical injuries, psychological trauma, lost wages, etc.

Is There a Camp Lejeune Class Action Lawsuit?

The passing of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act gave victims of the crisis the right to expect Federal compensation for their injuries. The complete list of the injuries associated with the Camp Lejeune waters was released by the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

Currently, there is no class action lawsuit for Camp Lejeune. Affected veterans and their families are allowed to file administrative claims with the Judge Advocate General (JAG) of the US Navy. The JAG has to resolve these claims by the completion of six months from the date of filing (subject to individual claim filing dates).

If no payout for Camp Lejeune is settled by then, the plaintiffs have the right to file a lawsuit against the Federal government. If that happens (which is likely it will, given the Navy’s delays in resolving claims), Camp Lejeune will become US’ largest-ever mass tort.

Speculations circulate in the legal world that the Navy is stalling the claims settlement process to cross the statute of limitations for the litigation, which is two years from the date of the Bill enactment (August 2024). However, the Navy has responded in its defense that staffing and funding shortages are the actual cause of the delays.

The current scenario is such that a seven-member attorney team has been selected for the plaintiffs by the judges overseeing the litigation. In the upcoming months, these seven attorneys will manage pleadings, discoveries, case settlements, etc., for nearly 70,000 administrative claims.

At the current rate, it is unlikely that any settlements could be made by the end of 2023. Attorneys and plaintiffs (albeit frustrated) are looking forward to 2024 for settlements or Bellwether trials.

 

A New Litigation Surrounding Unsolicited Robocalls

Amid the Camp Lejeune litigation chaos, a new lawsuit (associated with the said litigation) has surfaced. Three law firms, two belonging to West Virginia and one to New York, have been sued under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) of 1991.

Signed into law by President George W. Bush, this Bill was passed amidst growing numbers of tactical telemarketing calls. It prohibits companies across industry verticals from making unsolicited telemarketing calls through automatic dialing systems or pre-recorded artificial messages. The purpose of the Bill is to protect customer privacy and prevent harassment.

It was reported that the sued firms were guilty of harassing potential clients with unregulated telemarketing calls. At the root of it, the issue seems to be one of milking profits from people’s emotional vulnerabilities. Bloomberg had made a similar report earlier this year, stating that ad agencies and law firms had spent over $145 million in ads to attract potential plaintiffs and investors for Camp Lejeune lawsuits.

It was also found that certain firms saw Camp Lejeune as their golden chance to secure high contingency fees, as much as 40% of the settlement amount. According to TorHoerman Law, plaintiffs must invest in firms that offer free consultation, do not charge any upfront fees, and keep their contingency fee requirements to 20 or, at most, 25% of the settlement (as laid down under the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946).

As of now, this new litigation is a putative class-action lawsuit awaiting judges’ approval for a class-action. The motion for dismissal has already been declined for all three cases, and the firms may have to pay anywhere between $500 and $1500 for each TCPA violation. 

Parting Thoughts  

Both plaintiffs and Camp Lejeune attorneys have come a long way since the initial appeals, but the Navy’s delays in claims settlement are raising eyebrows. New cases are being filed in hundreds and thousands every month.

Though efforts are underway to reach fair settlements, speculations prevail that a Bellwether trial (or multiple such trials) may be needed to give Camp Lejeune victims the justice they deserve. In any case, the Federal government may need to shelve $25,000 to $1 million for each settlement, depending upon the injuries involved. 

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