The government this month took the first step toward settling some of the nearly 100,000 claims by veterans and family members who say they were harmed by contaminated drinking water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
But while the offers of between $100,000 and $550,000 from the Navy and the Justice Department to settle claims are likely to be accepted by some victims, many others and their attorneys are still pushing for action on more than 1,100 cases already filed in federal court.
“I’m committed to vigorously advocating for trials to begin in 2024,” Ed Bell of Bell Legal Group in Georgetown, S.C., the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said in an emailed response to questions. “The veterans, their families and others that have suffered from the water at Camp Lejeune and, after decades of waiting, they deserve to have their day in court.”
The actions in the decades-old saga were prompted by a 2022 law known as the PACT Act, which provides compensation for servicemembers exposed to toxic air from burn pits used by the military overseas, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. The law included provisions allowing those harmed at Camp Lejeune, where the water contained a host of contaminants from the mid-1950s through the mid-1980s, to file damage claims with the Navy and, if those were not resolved after six months, to file lawsuits in federal court in North Carolina.
When the one-year anniversary of the law passed in August without settlements of any claims, pressure mounted on federal officials to start moving on the more than 93,000 claims that have piled up at the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Office and the more than 1,100 cases filed in federal court.
The DOJ and the Navy responded on Sept. 6 with a process called the “elective option” offering settlements based on the amount of time spent at Camp Lejeune and the damage that was done later.
Those who contracted any of five “Tier 1” diseases — kidney cancer, liver cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia or bladder cancer — are eligible for $150,000 if they spent less than a year at Camp Lejeune between 1953 and 1987; $300,000 if they were at the base between one and five years; and $450,000 if they were there for more than five years.
Those with “Tier 2” diseases — multiple myeloma, Parkinson’s disease, kidney disease or end-stage renal disease, and systemic sclerosis or scleroderma — would be entitled to $100,000, $250,000 or $400,000, again depending on the time spent at Camp Lejeune.
In addition, the government will pay another $100,000 in cases of premature death from the diseases.
“The Elective Option is a critical step in bringing relief to qualifying claimants impacted by the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, who will now have an avenue for receiving quick and early resolution of claims under the Camp Lejeune Justice Act,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement when the plan was announced.
Erik Raven, the Navy undersecretary, also said the process will “streamline” many settlements. “We are committed to ensuring that every valid Camp Lejeune claim is resolved fairly and as expeditiously as possible,” he said.
Plaintiffs call offer inadequate
A group of plaintiffs’ attorneys led by Bell, appointed by North Carolina’s federal judges to take charge of the plaintiffs’ cases in July, called the settlement offers inadequate.
“After thirteen months of silence, the Department of the Navy has expressed an intent to make settlement offers in the near future, and we are encouraged by that,” the group said in a statement. “But it is important to acknowledge that the Navy’s proposal does not provide a just resolution for the majority of claimants.”
Two Camp Lejeune victims who have led efforts for government accountability for decades agreed.
Mike Partain, a Florida man who was born at Camp Lejeune in 1968 and was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 39, said he would not even be eligible for a settlement because the elective option is available only for those who were diagnosed with a disease connected to the contamination within 35 years of their exposure.
Partain also noted that he has been through chemotherapy eight times, with each treatment costing around $120,000, so any compensation less than $1 million would not begin to make up for the damages done.
Jerry Ensminger, a 24-year Marine Corps veteran whose daughter Janey was conceived at Camp Lejeune and died of leukemia in 1985 at the age of 9, also scoffed at the settlement offers. Ensminger started a campaign for compensation in the mid-1990s after he first learned that the contaminated water likely caused Janey’s death.
“I don’t give a damn how long it takes,” Ensminger said by phone Friday. “Unless they make me a decent offer, I’m going to court. I’ve already waited 25 years.”
The government has estimated that settlements and verdicts in the Camp Lejeune litigation could ultimately cost more than $20 billion. There were as many as 1 million Marines, family members and others who were exposed to the contaminated drinking water, the Navy has said.
An attorney for about 4,800 victims of Camp Lejeune’s poisoned water, Hunter Shkolnik, said he is counseling his clients, none of whom have filed lawsuits yet, about the pros and cons of the settlement offers. Shkolnik works at NSPR Law Services based in Santurce, Puerto Rico.
“I think it’s a huge step forward that the government has stepped up and offered a compensation program,” Shkolnik said in a phone interview. “I think that those family members that want closure, they have the right to and should exercise their right to participate in the program.”
Lawsuits may take years
The downside of not accepting a settlement now is that lawsuits in federal courts will likely take years, Shkolnik said.
“I understand there’s a lot of very upset people who have been fighting with the government forever,” he said. “But the U.S. government is not going to give millions of dollars to every person who has been exposed.”
A case management plan proposed by the Justice Department and the plaintiffs’ leadership group in August calls for a process of arguing cases in groups based on the types of damages alleged, but the plaintiffs’ lawyers and the DOJ disagree on when trials should start and which cases should go first. That will have to be decided by the four federal judges in North Carolina this fall.
Bell, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, argues the trials should begin in the first quarter of 2024 because the government has had plenty of time to prepare.
“My firm has consistently advocated for speedy trials working in tandem with efforts to drive an efficient resolution of this case that provides compensation to those harmed by the water at Camp Lejeune in a time period that is meaningful to them,” Bell said. “It is never lost on me that every day we lose someone to the effects of Camp Lejeune, and that burden animates my desire to act with speed.”
Shkolnik said he was concerned that some attorneys for the plaintiffs are pushing for trials because they stand to gain higher fees for their efforts.
“The bottom line is this is a play to make common benefit,” he said. “It’s unfortunate because the military and our veterans and our veterans’ families don’t deserve that. They don’t deserve to have lawyers looking to have a common benefit fee and pounding their chests and saying I’m great and ultimately coming out with numbers that are pretty close” to what victims could get now in settlements.
Bell said the law passed by Congress did not include a cap on attorneys fees, leaving it to plaintiffs to work that out when choosing their lawyers.
“However, it is incumbent on each attorney in these cases to deliver value to the client to match the fee charged and, every day, we strive to make sure that we not only deliver that value to our clients but that we exceed their expectations,” Bell said.
There have been a number of bills introduced this year that would cap legal fees in Camp Lejeune litigation, including one offered by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., to set limits of 12 to 17 percent.
“At this point with the legislation, getting justice for these individuals is as close to a slam dunk as you can have,” Issa said in an interview in August. “So it’s not like they’re going to have to do a lot of discovery or any fancy proof. All you really have to do is present somebody and their presence [at Camp Lejeune] and their medical records.”
None of the bills has seen any action in the House or Senate, however.
© 2023 CQ-Roll Call, Inc
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.