Attorneys for Camp Lejeune contaminated water victims are pleading foul against the government for attempting to ban jury trials that the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022 presumably grants so injured parties can be heard by juries.
Lawyers in a motion filed December 4, 2023, called the government ‘misguided’ and that the Act specifically intended for military service persons, employees, and others exposed to toxins in the water at the North Carolina Marine Corps base, from 1953 to 1987, to have their day in court. The motion accused the government of evading responsibility for the serious illnesses and fatalities by covering up the contamination and then relying on technicalities in existing law that would absolve them from liability. The lawyers called these past actions shameful and urged the court to reject the government’s earlier filing.
In November 2023, the government filed a motion attempting to limit plaintiffs’ right to jury trials to only when Congress clearly and affirmatively grants the right. It argues that the Camp Lejeune Justice Act specifies only that victims should receive appropriate relief, which is not the same as unambiguously granting jury trials.
University of Georgia Law Professor Elizabeth Chamblee Burch, a mass tort expert, believes the government may be worried that juries will be more sympathetic and generous to victims than judges. She said that if an early trial elicits a very high damages award from the jury, it could set a precedent for the awards in trials that follow, while judges would be more temperate because they are familiar with the scope of mass torts.
About 129,000 claims have already been filed with the Navy (the Marine Corps is a division of the Navy), with 1,400 filed in the Eastern District of North Carolina, under Camp Lejeune Water Litigation v. United States of America. More are expected. The current claims demand more than $3.3 trillion in compensation.
Interpretation of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act is one of two pretrial disputes that has slowed resolution and litigation until both are resolved. The second dispute concerns reports that some attorneys were charging clients fees of 40 percent or more of any settlement they received, which the government moved to limit this past fall. In October 2023, the government proposed a cap on attorneys’ fees that amounts to 20 percent of administrative settlements and 25 percent of damages awarded in litigation. These caps are in line with standards set froth in the Federal Tort Claims Act.
Because Camp Lejeune claims are expected to gain distinction as one of the largest mass torts in history, thus substantially slowing progress through the legal system, the government created an early resolution program. Settlements in the $100,000 to $550,000 range are expedited for victims whose claims are not in dispute.
Plaintiffs’ and government lawyers are currently submitting 50 cases for consideration as bellwether trials to begin on an unnamed date in 2024. Those who were harmed from exposure to the toxic water at Camp LeJeune have until August 2024 to register claims with the Navy. They can join litigation if the Navy rejects or fails to act on a registered claim within six months of receipt.
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