Limiting Camp Lejeune Attorney Fees in Contaminated Water Cases May Have Unintended Consequences

U.S. Capitol building

A Senate bill meant to protect U.S. Marine veterans from being exploited will severely limit their access to competent attorneys in lawsuits against the government, critics say.

The Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022 was enacted to permit Marines and their families exposed to contaminated water on base between 1953 and 1987 to file claims over the next two years for damages they suffered. It also prevents the federal government from denying claims as it has done in the past by raising routine defenses.

More than one million Marines and family members are current and potential plaintiffs, with those injured primarily developing cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and congenital disabilities attributed to toxic chemicals in Camp Lejeune’s drinking water. The plaintiffs must still prove they were exposed to toxins for at least 30 days, their injuries were caused by the tainted water, and the settlements they seek are appropriate.

History of the Camp Lejeune Toxic Water Problem

The federal government for years has denied Camp Lejeune toxic water injury claims, relying on qualified immunity defenses including the North Carolina statute of limitations and the Feres doctrine. Congress, with President Joe Biden’s signature, passed the Camp Lejeune Justice Act to allow veterans and their families to receive compensation for their exposure to toxic chemicals at the Marine base. In the first month after enacting the legislation, the government received about 5,000 claims.

Informed sources estimate that contaminated drinking water from Camp Lejeune may be linked to birth defects and wrongful death of thousands of unborn babies exposed in utero, as well as thousands of Parkinson’s disease cases and more than 50,000 cases of breast cancer, 28,000 cases of bladder cancer, and 24,000 cases of renal cancer,

Under the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022, all water contamination lawsuits must be filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina by August 10, 2024. Prior to filing a lawsuit, plaintiffs must file a claim with the Navy’s Tort Claims Unit (TCU) in Norfolk, Virginia.

The Camp Lejeune toxic water lawsuits are predicted to claim the honor as largest mass tort litigation in the country’s history.

The VETS Act

In late November, a group of Republican senators introduced the bill Protect Camp Lejeune Victims Ensnared by Trial-lawyers’ Scams (VETS), with a companion version also introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives.

The bill did not advance in the 117th Congress but could potentially return for the 118th. If the legislation passes, attorney fees would be capped at two percent for claims settled through the administrative process, and 10 percent for contingency fees from amounts awarded once a lawsuit is filed, even if the case proceeds to a full jury trial. These fees are well below what competent attorneys normally charge for personal injury claims on a contingency fee basis. Contingent fees usually range between 33.33 and 40 percent of any settlement the attorney recovers, the variables in fees depending on the case complexity.

The bill’s backers introduced it after citing reports of law firms using aggressive advertising to secure clients and then hitting them with higher contingency fees.

Critics and Supporters of the VETS Act

Although the proposed legislation is meant to protect veterans with legitimate claims from scams, it also dissuades competent lawyers from taking the Camp Lejeune cases, leaving many vets with legitimate claims at a disadvantage, according to veterans’ groups and other legislators. They have raised the issue that imposing monetary restrictions on attorneys’ fees for Camp Lejeune claims will deter the best lawyers from taking the cases, but also the proposed legislation may have been introduced to reduce the number of settlements the federal government will have to pay.

The VETS bill was sponsored in 2022 by Republican U.S. Senators Dan Sullivan, Chuck Grassley, Tommy Tuberville, Joni Ernst, Kevin Cramer, Bill Cassidy, Steve Daines, John Barrasso, Cynthia Lummis, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

If you have a client who is looking to be compensated for their exposure at Camp Lejeune, contact National Record Retrieval for information how to request and receive medical records in a timely, cost-effective, and efficient way.