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Bills seek to speed up lawsuits over Camp Lejeune contamination

Legislation spells out right to jury trials, which judges said wasn’t clear from previously enacted measures

“We have to have at least an ability for veterans, if they wish, to go in front of a jury and tell their story,” said Rep. Greg Murphy, R-N.C., who sponsored the bill.
“We have to have at least an ability for veterans, if they wish, to go in front of a jury and tell their story,” said Rep. Greg Murphy, R-N.C., who sponsored the bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Frustrated by the slow pace of more than 1,800 lawsuits filed against the government over harm from decades of contaminated drinking water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, a bipartisan group in Congress is pushing legislation to try to speed things along.

A bill from Rep. Greg Murphy, R-N.C., with 11 co-sponsors as of Thursday, would broaden the terms of a 2022 law that gave victims of the tainted water the right to sue for damages and would allow plaintiffs to request jury trials despite a February decision by four federal judges in North Carolina that they would hear the cases themselves.

And a bill sponsored by Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., that passed the Senate by unanimous consent on June 4 would offer free services to veterans and attorneys who need “guidance and advice on any disability awards, payments, or benefits” in the Camp Lejeune litigation.

As many as a million people, mostly Marines and family members, were exposed to toxic chemicals in drinking water at the base on the North Carolina coast from the 1950s to the mid-1980s, according to the Department of Defense.

Since the law was enacted in August 2022, giving victims two years to file claims and lawsuits, at least 232,890 administrative claims have been filed with the Navy and more than 1,800 lawsuits have been filed in federal court in North Carolina, according to the Camp Lejeune Claims Center, an advocacy group for veterans exposed to the contamination.

Together the filings seek trillions of dollars in damages, according to the Justice Department, but the claims center says only 58 settlements totaling $14.4 million have been made since September, when the DOJ offered payments of between $100,000 and $550,000 depending on the health effects reported. 

The lawsuits, many of which may be seeking higher payouts than what the government offered, are awaiting decisions by the DOJ and plaintiffs’ attorneys on which cases will be heard first.

The lead attorney for plaintiffs in the litigation, Ed Bell of the Bell Legal Group in Georgetown, S.C., said he is hopeful some trials will begin by the end of the year. The lawyers are now selecting 25 bellwether cases, with five for each of the “Tier 1 diseases” established in court proceedings so far: kidney cancer, liver cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia and bladder cancer, he said.

‘Hallmark’ of the system

A key piece of the House bill is to allow plaintiffs to request jury trials, after the federal judges ruled that Congress did not clearly delineate that right two years ago when it passed the law allowing those harmed by the contamination to file damage claims with the Navy and then lawsuits in federal court if those claims weren’t resolved within six months.

“We have to have at least an ability for veterans, if they wish, to go in front of a jury and tell their story,” Murphy said in an interview. “I think that’s a hallmark of the American judicial system.”

Murphy’s bill would also allow victims to file lawsuits in any of the five states in the jurisdiction of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit — Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina — rather than just in North Carolina’s federal courts as specified in the 2022 law.

It would also set limits on attorneys fees, as the DOJ recommended when it announced the settlement plan last fall: Fees should not exceed 20 percent for administrative claims and 25 percent for lawsuits filed in court.

“As with some of these big bills, sometimes it needs technical corrections,” Murphy said. “This bill helps alleviate some of the heartache that some folks had about attorneys fees, their right to access. I think we’ve been able to work it in a bipartisan manner, and I think it has a good chance of coming through.”

He added that the House bill could be combined with the Senate one. “I’m sure we can work out some agreement where hopefully we can get relief to the veterans,” Murphy said.

Bell said passage of the legislation, particularly the House bill, “would change the dynamics” of the litigation process.

A partner in Bell’s law firm, Eric Flynn, echoed that assessment. “This is the single most important piece of legislation outside of the passage of the 2022 law itself,” Flynn said. “It would give more money to more veterans faster.”

Both Bell and Flynn argued that the government is purposely slowing the process with numerous motions and challenges to plaintiffs’ claims in hopes of reducing its compensation costs as more and more victims of the contamination, many of whom are elderly, die from serious illnesses.

“It seems to me this is a game to them,” Bell said. “They’re trying to find every way they can to interrupt the process and not pay the people. And we have an average of 1.5 to 2 people dying every day in our group. We literally hear about a dozen or so deaths every week.”

He added that most plaintiffs are less concerned about compensation than they are about holding the government accountable. “Most of these Marine families, they want to help others, and they want to have some answer from the government: ‘Why did they do this to us?’” Bell said. “It never has been about the money.”

Asked whether he believes the government is stalling, Murphy said, “I think that’s a valid concern. Hence, we wouldn’t be having to do some of these other things to basically force our own government’s hands.”

He continued: “I can’t speak to motivation. All I can do is speak to the reality that for these veterans, it’s been adjudicated to them that they would have the ability to be compensated for their injuries, and I think our government has been very slow to facilitate that compensation.”

Murphy added that the Defense Department has been downplaying the problems at Camp Lejeune for decades.

“This whole thing started because the Navy basically washed its hands of what was going on with the veterans, which in retrospect was a very big missed opportunity that we could have had to admit wrongdoing and move forward. Instead, it had to drag out longer,” he said. “I sure hope those get adjudicated a lot quicker. It’s not right for our veterans. We’re not doing our veterans any justice by delaying things.”

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