It’s been over a year since the Biden administration passed the Camp Lejeune Justice Act (CLJA). Veterans and their civilian families who consumed water from North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune had suffered life-threatening ailments.
These included cancers of the liver, bladder, kidneys, renal toxicity, aplastic anemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, scleroderma, and more. The hope for justice came after decades of using water contaminated with Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).
Even after the issue was discovered (along with its source, which happened to be an offsite dry cleaning facility), nothing was done to compensate the victims. The Obama administration only offered free medical aid. It was the CLJA that made the Federal government give up its sovereign immunity for legal justice.
However, even the past year has been rife with uncertainties and struggles. There has been some progression in the Camp Lejeune litigation, but there’s also fear that it’s too early to rejoice. In this article, we will explore the development of this lawsuit and the tentative timeline for settlements.
Early Settlement Program: The Government’s Attempt to Escape
Over the months following the CLJA, veterans were disappointed (even frustrated) with the snail-pace of the litigation. Their concerns were justified since the statute of limitations (two years from the CLJA) was fast approaching.
Moreover, the Navy Judge Advocate General (JAG) had not resolved a single administrative claim citing funding and staff shortages. This went on for a year, and the plaintiff's counsel was certain that it was a deliberate move to curb payouts.
The best lawyers for the Camp Lejeune lawsuit had created immense pressure on the government to take early action. Finally, an early settlement program was introduced in September 2023. The quick settlement scheme offered settlements up to $550,000 to knock back claim numbers.
By this time, nearly 93,000 claims were pending. Plus, trials are only set to begin by early 2024. Therefore, the government launched this scheme to settle claims based on the duration of stay at the Base and specific injuries.
Mixed Feelings Persist among Claimants
One would expect veterans to jump at the prospect of an early settlement. However, the same might be true only for a minority. In general, the payouts are too low.
However, some cases with limited exposure and evidential risks may benefit from the proposed program.
For example – suppose a claimant spent 30 days at the Base and was diagnosed with bladder cancer (two decades later). According to TorHoerman Law, the discovery phase of each case will involve an exchange of evidence through medical records, witness interviews, etc.
At this stage, if it is found that the claimant smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, the case becomes challenging. Establishing a direct link between the cancer and the Camp Lejeune waters can be difficult. Such cases may have a chance at fair settlements through the government’s rough early settlement formula.
The fact remains that only a very few cases may be similar. There’s another reason why claimants are not enthusiastic about the scheme – its focus on specific injuries and stay duration. For example – an offer of $550,000 would be valid for those who developed kidney cancer after spending over five years at Camp Lejeune.
Not many claimants spent that long at the Base. If someone was stationed for a year, they would be eligible to receive $150,000 (despite suffering from advanced-stage kidney cancer). If there ever was rough justice served in the quickest way possible, this has to be it.
The Reverse Effect: Case Numbers Jump
Besides introducing the early settlement plan, the government has set a cap on plaintiff attorneys’ fees. They are 25% and 20% for litigation payouts and administrative settlements, respectively.
On the other hand, claimants are still wondering whether they should participate in the government’s early settlement scheme. Over 1,100 lawsuits have already been filed. Meanwhile, the court overseeing these cases has announced the ‘track system’ for an efficient trial process (expected to begin next year).
Each track will cover a specific range of diseases. An example would be bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and Parkinson’s disease, which are included in Track 1. Illnesses included in Track 2 and 3 are yet to be declared.
Even a master complaint was filed to consolidate all common legal allegations and claims associated with the lawsuit. They were taken from a large group of plaintiffs who have suffered similar injuries. Just a month after the early settlement program was introduced, civil filings increased.
It seems like the government’s plan to reduce case numbers backfired. A month before the settlement program, the number of new filings stood at 50 in August. Just a month after the program, case numbers spiked to 193 (a whopping 300% increase).
Speculations circulate that the Camp Lejeune litigation’s progress (no matter how slow) has offered a glimmer of hope. Claimants with risky cases may be willing to settle for rough justice. Even those who won’t have only a few more months to wait before the first Bellwether trial begins.
Furthermore, the statute of limitations for this lawsuit will close by August 2024. At least till then, it is expected that claimants will not remain languid. As the litigation progresses further and news of settlements emerges, new filings will also be made. After all, Camp Lejeune’s waters affected at least one million veterans and their civilian families.
It may be too early to rejoice, but it’s still not too late to hold hopes for justice.