A bill giving hope for compensation to victims who were harmed by decades of water contamination at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune has new life.
U.S. Congressmen Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA), Rep. Greg Murphy (R-NC) and Rep. David Price (D-NC) reintroduced the Camp Lejeune Justice Act to the House of Representatives on Friday.
If passed by Congress and signed into law, the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2021 would allow the service members, families and civilian workers who drank and bathed in toxic water at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days from August 1953 to December 1987 to file a claim and bring a lawsuit before the district court for the Eastern District of North Carolina in order to present evidence that their health issues, or a loved one’s death, may be linked to the exposure.
“Military service comes with incredible sacrifice and immense struggle,” Murphy said in a news release. “If government failure makes those struggles even worse, we owe it to our veterans to make sure they are taken care of.”
The first edition of bill was introduced in the House by Cartwright in March 2020 and in the Senate by Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) in September as a response to lawsuits litigating the issue getting tossed out years ago based on an anomaly in North Carolina state law called the statute of repose, which prohibits harmed individuals from taking legal action 10 years after exposure. The Camp Lejeune Justice Act would bypass that statute.
“When it comes to getting care to those affected by water contamination at Camp Lejeune, we have failed,” Murphy added. “That’s why I’m joining Representatives Cartwright and Price to remove the legal hurdles currently preventing veterans from getting their day in court.”
Ed Bell, president and founder of Bell Legal Group, authored the bill, though he says it was a joint effort with members of Congress.
“All we are trying to do is give the folks that were affected a chance,” Bell said, who has been working on the issue for well over a decade. “We can’t tell them that they are going to win their case. They still have to go to court.”
The legislation allows individuals claiming harm from exposure to file a lawsuit and seek monetary relief from the United States government for injuries believed to have been incurred from the water contamination and prohibits government immunity from litigation.
Burden of proof will be placed on the suing party, requiring conclusive evidence from epidemiological or human study showing harm was caused by, associated with, linked to or increased the likelihood of occurring based on the contaminants found in the water supply such as benzene, vinyl chloride, dichloroethylene (DCE) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE).
While one point of view is that bringing all the cases to a single district could potentially overwhelm the court system, Bell says having one court handle it would be better than multiple courts ruling differently on the same issue.
“When you have lots of people, courts usually set up a system called a mass tort case, and they manage the entire case or cases, and everybody is required to join in,” Bell said. “It’s a very orderly process. The courts have had this come up in multiple injury claims like train wrecks and environmental spills, things like this, and they manage it pretty well.”
Bell says the cases could be handled by a bellwether claims process, where the plaintiff and defendant each pick a pool of cases to present in order to give the court or jury an idea of where the suits might go.
According to the bill as introduced, those who wish to file a claim would have two years from the day the law is enacted to do so and 180 days to appeal any denial. No punitive damages, meaning punishing the government or military for wrongdoing, will be granted.
Payments to harmed individuals granted by way of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act could be amortized, or paid out, over a period of 20 years. According to Bell, payments would be non-budgeted funds via the U.S. Treasury’s Judgement Fund.
U.S. House members from North Carolina to cosponsor the bill are Reps. Alma Adams, Ted Budd, G.K. Butterfield, Richard Hudson, Kathy Manning, Patrick McHenry, Deborah Ross and David Rouzer.
Reporter Calvin Shomaker can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org