Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Lawsuit: What You Need to Know

Doug Mann

This isn’t the first time Camp Lejeune has been in the news, but people who suffered illnesses from the contaminated water at the North Carolina Marine Corps base or who lost loved ones due to the toxic water may finally be getting access to the compensation they deserve. 

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Table of Contents
  1. What Happened at Camp Lejeune? 
  2. The History of Camp Lejeune Claims
  3. Will Camp Lejeune Victims Finally Get Their Day in Court? 
  4. Next Steps for Camp Lejeune Toxic Exposure Victims

What Happened at Camp Lejeune? 

In the early 1980s it was discovered that water supply systems at Camp Lejeune were contaminated with a variety of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The most significant contamination was from trichloroethylene (TCE). The water supply was also contaminated with perchloroethylene (PCE), trans-1,2-dichloroethylene (DCE), vinyl chloride and benzene. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), TCE levels as high as 1400 parts per billion (ppb) had been recorded.

As of the date of the CDC report, 1400 ppb was 280 times the maximum concentration permitted for drinking water.

These contaminated systems supplied water to many areas on the base, including housing for both families and enlisted personnel without families, recreational areas, schools, administrative offices, and at some times the base hospital. 

Measurement of the contaminants was only available for a five-year period in the 1980s. However, according to a report from The National Academies, modeling suggests that PCE in the water exceeded the maximum contaminant level (MCL) established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as early as 1957. And, the CDC report mentioned above concluded that the water contained unsafe levels of at least one VOC even earlier–in August of 1953. 

That means military personnel, their families, and civilian staff across more than three decades may have been exposed to dangerous levels of the chemical in their water. 

What Kind of Illnesses are Associated with the Camp Lejeune Water Contamination?

The contaminants at Camp Lejeune are potentially tied to a wide variety of cancers and other medical conditions, including: 

  • Leukemia
  • Bladder cancer 
  • Kidney cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Renal toxicity
  • Scleroderma
  • Myelodysplastic syndromes
  • Hepatic steatosis
  • Neurobehavioral effects
  • Female infertility and miscarriage

Where Did the Contamination Come From? 

According to the CDC, contamination in the water supply came from multiple sources, including leaking underground storage tanks and waste disposal sites. TCE was widely used by the military, and may also be created by the degeneration of PCE. PCE is a popular dry cleaning solvent, and that contamination is believed to have originated from a local dry cleaner. 

The History of Camp Lejeune Claims

The water supply at Camp Lejeune was contaminated from the early 1950s to the mid 1980s, and the contamination was discovered in the 1980s. So, you may be wondering why we’re talking about injury and illness claims in 2022. 

Some of those who were diagnosed with cancer or one of the conditions above after their time at Camp Lejeune or lost a family member have been fighting for fair compensation for a long time. The contamination began nearly 70 years ago and 10 wells were shut down in 1984 and 1985. The EPA put the site on its national priorities list in 1989. But, it took another 15 years for the Marine Corps to establish a panel to review the situation.

One of the panel’s conclusions was that the Marine Corps had failed to adequately communicate the potential risks associated with the contamination to residents. 

It was another five years before The National Academies published its assessment of the potential health effects of the contaminated water supply at Camp Lejeune. About the same time, veterans who had served at Camp Lejeune and later been diagnosed with various forms of cancer began to file lawsuits in federal court. 

The First Camp Lejeune Multi-District Litigation (MDL)

Hundreds of cases were consolidated in multidistrict litigation (MDL) in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. MDL is a more efficient means for the courts to process large numbers of cases with common issues and evidence. Certain aspects of the cases, such as the exchange of certain types of evidence, is streamlined. But, each plaintiff still has the opportunity to present evidence of specific damages. 

A handful of cases are selected as “bellwether” cases–cases that will be tried first to give the plaintiffs, the defendants, and the court a better idea of how the remaining cases will play out. Often, the outcome of the bellwether cases guides settlement negotiations, allowing a large number of cases to move forward more quickly than would be possible with hundreds of separate trials. 

Unfortunately, in 2016, the court granted the government’s motion to dismiss the pending cases. The court ruled that the federal statute that entitled plaintiffs to compensation did not preempt North Carolina’s 10-year statute of repose. 

An expert tip from Doug Mann

Most people aren’t familiar with statutes of repose. The more commonly-known statute of limitations sets a deadline for filing suit. But, the starting point may be later than when the incident occurred. For example, with toxic exposure cases, the statute of limitations may not start to run until the effects are discovered. The statute of repose draws a hard line–in this case, no later than 10 years after the incident occurred, no matter when the plaintiff finds out about the exposure or related injury.

In short, despite the federal law providing for compensation, the cases were too old. Plaintiffs appealed the dismissal, but lost. It looked like their hopes for compensation were lost.

Camp Lejeune Legislation

In 2012, Congress provided some assistance for service members and family members who may have been harmed by the toxic water supply. Even then, the support was limited. 

The Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012: 

  • Provided free healthcare to veterans in connection with the conditions listed above, if those veterans had served at least 30 days of active duty at Camp Lejeune between August 1, 1953 and December 31, 1987, 
  • Provided Veterans Administration (VA) healthcare to veterans who served at Camp Lejeune during the same time period and did not have a qualifying condition, though they would be responsible for the same cost-share as with standard VA coverage, and
  • Reimbursement of out-of-pocket medical expenses incurred by veterans’ family members who are being treated for one of the above conditions and meet the residency qualification

The VA also established a “presumptive service connection” for those seeking disability benefits for certain conditions. Eligibility was broader in that it extended not just to veterans, but also to reservists and members of the National Guard exposed to the contaminated water during the same period.

But, it was narrower in that the presumptive service connection applied to only eight illnesses and conditions: 

  • Adult leukemia
  • Bladder cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Parkinson’s disease

However, that didn’t necessarily mean that disability benefits would not be granted for other conditions related to the toxic substances in the water–only that there was no presumption that the condition was related to military service. 

Note, though, that the legislation only provided veterans, reservists and guardsmen with disability benefits and medical care, and veterans and family members who were exposed with access to medical care. The new law and VA guidelines didn’t offer compensation to veterans or others who suffered illnesses and other health complications due to the contaminated water.

Those who were harmed by the water or lost loved ones were still left without access to compensation for lost earnings, past medical expenses and other associated costs, the loss of their loved ones, pain and suffering, and other damages that might have been available in a lawsuit.

Will Camp Lejeune Victims Finally Get Their Day in Court? 

In 2021, legislation was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would have allowed those harmed by the water at Camp Lejeune to pursue federal claims for damages, despite the North Carolina statute of repose. That bill didn’t become law, but was reintroduced this year as the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022

That bill has been consolidated with the Honoring Our PACT Act of 2022 and has passed both houses of Congress. The bill hasn’t yet been signed into law because an additional proposed amendment relating to spending is holding up the process. But, President Biden has already indicated support for the legislation and is expected to sign. 

July 28th, 2022 Update: The Honoring Our PACT Act has been blocked by the Senate.

What’s in the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022? 

The new law, when passed, will give veterans and others who were harmed by the toxic water at Camp Lejeune a window in which to file federal lawsuits for compensation. The law even offers a lesser burden of proof than a plaintiff in an injury or toxic exposure case would usually face. To establish a claim, the plaintiff must show that the relationship between exposure to the water at Camp Lejeune is either: 

  • Sufficient to conclude that a causal relationship exists, or
  • Sufficient to conclude that a causal relationship is at least as likely as not

But, there are some limitations: 

  • The claimant must first submit a claim to the appropriate federal agency, as required by 28 U.S.C. §2675
  • Lawsuits must be filed by the later of two years from the date the legislation becomes effective or 180 days after denial of a claim by the federal agency
  • Lawsuits may be filed only in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina
  • No punitive damages are available

Next Steps for Camp Lejeune Toxic Exposure Victims

If you suffered a serious illness or medical condition due to exposure to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, the pending legislation will offer the best and likely only opportunity to secure compensation for your losses. But, you will have a limited amount of time to file your case, and will have to pursue administrative remedies first. 

Toxic exposure cases are complex and technical, meaning that it will take time to properly prepare your case, and expert witnesses will likely be required. That means you’ll want to act quickly, and that it’s important that you choose the right law firm to fight this battle for you. The experienced injury lawyers at Dyer, Garofalo, Mann & Schultz have the substantive and procedural knowledge, experience, and network of experts and other professionals necessary to build the best possible case on your behalf. 

It’s estimated that about 750,000 people were stationed at or lived or worked on base at Camp Lejeune between 1953 and 1987. When the new law takes effect, there will likely be a flood of claims. Take advantage of the opportunity to schedule a free consultation right now and gather the information you need before the rush.

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