President Joe Biden signed the Camp Lejeune Justice Act (CLJA) into law last August. Legislators included the CLJA bill in the Honoring Our PACT Act, legislation to help veterans affected by toxic exposure. It signaled a victory for the military veterans and their families injured by contaminated water at the North Carolina military base. They were allowed to sue the government for damages for the first time. The bill set a clear timeline for processing cases. The Department of the Navy would have six months to make a Camp Lejeune settlement offer or deny a claim. If the government didn’t respond in six months, offered a lowball settlement amount, or rejected a case, the injured party could file a Camp Lejeune lawsuit.
It quickly became apparent that settling would be more complex than anticipated due to delays, although it wasn’t clear just how long Camp Lejeune claimants would be waiting. No cases have been settled over a year since the CLJA went into effect. The backlog has been attributed to staff shortages, funding issues, and government regulations. Regardless of the cause, tens of thousands of veterans and their families who have waited decades for the opportunity to file a claim find themselves in limbo again. Judges and lawyers are now discussing how to speed up Camp Lejeune settlements.
Camp Lejeune Claims Process
The water at Camp Lejeune was contaminated for more than 30 years. From 1953 to 1987, civilians, military service members, and their families unknowingly drank and bathed in toxic water. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), more than one million people were potentially exposed. When the federal government shut down the affected water wells, it was too late for many former and current Camp Lejeune residents. Camp Lejeune water exposure has been linked to a higher risk of Parkinson’s disease, myelodysplastic syndromes, and several types of cancer. Before last year, affected veterans could only seek recourse through the VA because active duty service members weren’t allowed to sue the government. After the PACT Act passed the House, Biden said that the legislation “makes good on our sacred obligation to care for veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors.”
While Camp Lejeune survivors celebrated the legislation, the triumph was short-lived. Some of the veterans affected are expected to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it’s uncertain when the money will be disbursed. More than 93,000 people have filed claims, but none have been settled. Many of those who have submitted claims are elderly with serious health problems caused by Camp Lejeune contamination, and they worry that they may not see justice before they die.
Speeding Up Camp Lejeune Settlements
Over 1,100 Camp Lejeune lawsuits have been filed and are pending in the Eastern District of North Carolina. The Department of Justice requested more time to respond to cases, which a judge granted. When the CLJA was announced, Camp Lejeune lawyers and plaintiffs expected to resolve their claims through settling. Filing a lawsuit can take longer and cost more than settling out of court, but the government’s lack of response made many feel like they didn’t have another choice.
The district court responsible for the Camp Lejeune filings is currently handling three times more cases than usual. U.S. District Court Judge James Dever, one of the judges presiding over the Camp Lejeune lawsuits, estimated it could take the judges 1,900 years to process the cases. He said the Department of the Navy needs to settle more claims through its Camp Lejeune administrative claims process before they can reach court, which would speed up the process. Dever also asked the plaintiffs’ attorneys to create a leadership team to manage settlement discussions and communicate publicly about cases.
A Comparable Settlement Process
Camp Lejeune has the potential to become one of the most significant mass torts of all time because of how many people are eligible to sue. Handling all the claims efficiently will be the biggest challenge for the government and court system. There’s been talk of consolidating the cases to make the process more streamlined, but it’s unclear whether that will happen. The Camp Lejeune claims have been compared to the lawsuits brought after the September 11 terrorist attacks by workers and rescuers who got sick after inhaling debris.
During cleanup, rescuers were assured that the air was safe and that they didn’t need respiratory protection. Thousands of workers were diagnosed with cancer and other diseases years later and sued the Port Authority, New York City, and private contracting companies. Because the injuries ranged in severity and the amount of exposure varied, settling the cases proved complex. The judge handling the 9/11 cases instructed lawyers to create a database of each claim and detail the seriousness of injuries. This database accelerated the settlement process, and a similar strategy could help finalize Camp Lejeune cases quickly.
If you or a loved one were diagnosed with a medical condition after serving at Camp Lejeune, there’s still time to file a claim. It’s essential to find a Camp Lejeune lawyer to make sure you don’t miss the settlement deadline next August and to ensure you have assistance navigating complex case delays and other issues that may arise.