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Jury trials denied in Camp Lejeune lawsuits

Judges say Congress did not clearly delineate right to jury trial in 2022 law

Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. (Fred Marie/Art In All Of Us/Corbis via Getty Images file photo)

Victims of past water contamination at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune are not entitled to jury trials in their lawsuits seeking damages from the federal government, four U.S. District Court judges in North Carolina said in a ruling Tuesday.

The judges said Congress did not clearly delineate a right to jury trials when it passed the 2022 law allowing those harmed by the contamination to file damage claims with the Navy and then lawsuits in federal court if those claims were not resolved within six months.

The Camp Lejeune Justice Act, which is part of a broader law called the PACT Act, “does not unequivocally, affirmatively, and unambiguously provide plaintiffs the right to a jury trial in actions seeking relief,” the judges wrote. “Moreover, in the CLJA, Congress did not clearly and unequivocally depart from its usual practice of not permitting a jury trial against the United States. Thus, the court grants defendant’s motion to strike the jury trial demand in plaintiffs’ master complaint.”

The federal judges in North Carolina are working out the process for handling more than 1,500 lawsuits filed by former Marines, family members and others exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune from 1953 to 1987. The Navy is also processing more than 166,000 claims filed with the Judge Advocate General’s Office since the law allowing the claims was enacted in August 2022.

Victims of the contamination have argued that juries are likely to be more amenable to compensation than if verdicts are determined solely by a judge.

[Related: Landmark study documents cancer cases among Camp Lejeune victims]

Lori Freshwater, who has a lawsuit pending over the death from leukemia of her mother, who resided for years at Camp Lejeune, said she hopes the cases can now be heard expeditiously because many victims have waited decades for compensation.

“Although I am disappointed, I understand the law had weaknesses and I respect the judges’ ruling,” Freshwater said. “I hope we do not delay with more appeals and instead move forward with what we have for the people who need it the most.”

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