In August 2022, President Joe Biden signed into law the Honoring Our PACT Act, which expanded the disability benefits for veterans who had been exposed to toxic substances as a result of their service. Section 804 of this new law is known as the Camp Lejeune Justice Act.
It allows service members and their families exposed to harmful substances due to water contamination at the marine corps base to file lawsuits against the government to seek compensation for the expenses and impacts of illnesses associated with this contamination.
Here is a look at the act, the illnesses it covers, and the claims process that injured Minnesotans may face.
Why Was the Camp Lejeune Justice Act Necessary?
According to U.S. Congressman Gregory F. Murphy, MD, of North Carolina—one of the sponsors of the bipartisan bill that ultimately became the Camp Lejeune Justice Act—the purpose of the law is to “provide long-overdue judicial relief to victims of water contamination at Camp Lejeune.” The act eliminates some of the red tape faced by those harmed by Camp Lejeune water contamination when attempting to hold the government accountable for failing to ensure the safety of the water supply on the military installation.
The act contains these provisions:
- Servicemen and women and their family members who were at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days during the 34 years in which the water supply was contaminated have two years from the date of the law’s passage to file a legal claim against the government.
- The United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina was named as the exclusive venue for legal actions brought against the U.S. government as a result of the act.
- The act prevents the U.S. government from asserting immunity in these cases and overrides North Carolina’s 10-year statute of repose.
- Punitive damages are not available in Camp Lejeune water contamination claims. Punitive damages are awarded not as compensation for the claimant’s expenses and impacts but as a financial punishment against the defendant.
- Any benefits the veteran is receiving related to illnesses they incurred due to Camp Lejeune water contamination will be used as offsets for the award received through the claims process, as are Medicaid or Medicare benefits.
- The Honoring Our PACT act provides enhanced benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits and other toxic exposures during military service.
Co-sponsor of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, Congressman David Price, also of North Carolina, stated about the law’s passage, “The federal government has a responsibility to care for our veterans, service members, and their families—but that’s not what happened at Camp Lejeune when thousands were exposed to contaminated tap water for decades. Those affected have suffered for far too long, and they deserve justice—including their day in court.”
Water Contamination at Camp Lejeune
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the Marine Corps discovered in 1982 that two contaminated water treatment plants provided drinking water on the base.
- The Tarawa Terrace plant was contaminated by PCE (perchloroethylene or tetrachloroethylene) as the result of improper waste disposal practices at an off-base dry cleaning firm.
- The Hadnot Point water treatment plant was primarily contaminated with TCE (trichloroethylene), though other contaminants were also found, including PCE, benzene, TCE degradation products, and vinyl chloride. Multiple sources contaminated the supply wells for this plant, including leaking underground storage tanks, industrial area spills, and waste disposal sites.
As noted by the veterans’ advocacy group Justice for Lejeune, the drinking water from these plants was up to 280 times higher than what is permitted by safety standards. In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that TCE is a known carcinogen that causes cancer. The maximum TCE level allowed in drinking water then was five parts per billion. A 1982 water sample from the Naval Hospital at Camp Lejeune contained 1,400 parts per billion of TCE.
What Illnesses are Associated with Camp Lejeune Water Contamination?
The U.S. Veterans Administration (VA) has identified 15 conditions associated with exposure to the chemicals found at Camp Lejeune.
These illnesses include:
- Bladder cancer
- Breast cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Female infertility
- Hepatic steatosis
- Kidney cancer
- Lung cancer
- Multiple Myeloma
- Myelodysplastic syndromes
- Neurobehavioral effects
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Renal toxicity
While the VA does not list Parkinson’s Disease as one of the conditions that make one presumptively eligible for disability benefits, this condition has also been suffered by those exposed to Camp Lejeune water contamination, and compensation for expenses and impacts associated with Parkinson’s can also be compensated through the Camp Lejeune Justice Act.
The Difficulty of Filing Lawsuits Before the Act
North Carolina has a strict 10-year statute of repose, so people who long-term polluters harmed in the state—including the U.S. government—only had ten years from the contamination to file their claims in court.
Many cancers associated with exposure to the contamination at Camp Lejeune do not immediately appear. Instead, the chemicals remain in the body, causing cellular damage. The time that passes between exposure to a carcinogenic substance and cancer diagnosis is known as the latency period.
For many types of cancers, the minimum latency period is several years. There is no maximum latency period, however, as once exposed to a cancer-causing substance, the individual remains at an increased risk of cancer for the rest of their life. Most people diagnosed with Camp Lejeune-related cancer did not even know they were ill or what caused their illness until North Carolina’s statute of repose had already passed.
One of the primary purposes of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act was to override the statute of repose so that claims could be filed and those harmed by the government’s failure to protect the water supply at Camp Lejeune could be compensated for the expenses and impacts of their illness.
Indy Week quoted a spokesperson for Camp Lejeune advocacy organization The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten as saying, “Camp Lejeune is by far the largest and worst case of drinking water contamination in the history of the United States. That is in the number of people exposed and the levels of the contaminants found in the water. Somewhere between 750,000 and 1 million were exposed.”
The Process of Filing a Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Claim
The Camp Lejeune Justice Act has tasked the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG) with administering Camp Lejeune water contamination claims.
The process of filing a claim includes:
- You attend a free case evaluation with a personal injury attorney with experience in water contamination claims. During this evaluation, you can discuss details of your case and obtain answers to your questions about the claim process. An attorney can help you determine eligibility for compensation through the act.
- Your legal team begins gathering the documentation needed to establish your presence at Camp Lejeune during the eligible period and the diagnosis of an illness associated with exposure to the types of chemicals found in Camp Lejeune’s water supply.
- Your claim is submitted to JAG and reviewed to determine the amount of compensation you’re eligible to receive. You and your attorney will go over the offer, and your attorney can negotiate to get a larger settlement if needed.
- If you are unable to get an offer of fair compensation through the claims process, your attorney can file a lawsuit before the filing deadline so that a judge or jury can hear the case and decide the amount of compensation owed to you.
Will Filing a Lawsuit Impact Your Ability to Collect VA Disability Benefits?
As explained by the VA, filing a Camp Lejeune water contamination claim will not impact your eligibility for disability benefits. However, in some cases, the receipt of disability benefits can affect the amount of compensation available through a lawsuit, as the court will reduce (offset) the award by any amount of disability award you receive as a result of the impact of an illness associated with your exposure to water contamination at Camp Lejeune.
How an Attorney Can Help You With Your Claim
Having an attorney with experience filing Camp Lejeune water contamination claims is essential to receiving the compensation you need. Your attorney not only can help you determine whether you’re eligible to file a claim but also help you gather the necessary documentation to prove your presence at Camp Lejeune and the diagnosis of a related illness.
Your attorney can also establish a value to your claim based on the costs you incurred due to your illness, such as medical expenses or wage loss, as well as the psychological impacts you endured as a result of the illness. This will often involve interviewing family, friends, physicians, and even your employer or co-workers to learn more about the difficulties you experienced because of the illness and the medical interventions used to treat the illness.
Your attorney is a skilled negotiator and will manage communication with claims adjusters that JAG uses to evaluate filed claims. Often, they can provide the information needed to secure a higher offer. However, if your claim is denied or the offer does not constitute fair compensation in your case, your attorney can file a lawsuit and work with experts to provide further proof of the connection between your time at Camp Lejeune and the illness you have been diagnosed with.
What Should You Do If You’ve Been Recently Diagnosed with a Camp Lejeune-Related Illness?
If doctors diagnosed you with one of the above-listed illnesses and you spent at least 30 days at Camp Lejeune during the 34 years that its water supply was contaminated:
- Obtain treatment for your illness from a healthcare provider. Even if you have not received disability benefits, you can contact the nearest VA to learn how to obtain treatment for your Camp Lejeune-related illness.
- Speak with an experienced attorney as soon as possible about your case. The window for filing a claim closes in August of 2024, and there is no indication that the deadline will be extended. Your attorney can also explore other options for obtaining benefits and assistance through the VA and other programs to ensure that you have the help you need.
- Gather the documentation you have that can prove your presence at Camp Lejeune, such as military service records for the claimant and their family members or other records relating to employment. Your legal team can also assist you with finding documents to support your claim.