The Camp Lejeune Justice Act

For over two decades, injured Camp Lejeune service members and their families were not able to recover financial compensation for the harm that they suffered from the contaminated water. This was one of the most shameful moments in United States military history. Not only were service members exposed to grave harm, but their family members who accompanied them were also sickened. A combination of incompetence and a nefarious cover-up was enough to keep the government from having to pay the people that it harmed.

camp lejeune justice act of 2022
Justice and compensation for Camp Lejeune victims and their families

 

Now, the Camp Lejeune Justice Act is intended to. After a burst of partisan wrangling Congress has passed this law as part of broader legislation focused on veterans’ healthcare. You and your family may be able to recover compensation for injuries resulting from exposure to toxic Camp Lejeune water.

North Carolina State Law Was the Main Obstacle to Recovery

The main problem that was keeping Camp Lejeune service members and their families from getting justice and financial compensation for their illnesses was a statute of repose in North Carolina law. A statute of repose is something completely different from a statute of limitations. Instead of being a time limit on the victim’s right to sue, a statute of repose is a limitation on the polluter’s liability. Under North Carolina law, the polluter can no longer be sued ten years after their last act of pollution.

In the case of Camp Lejeune, the last act of pollution occurred roughly in 1987, when the last of the contaminated water wells and treatment plants were shut down. The problem was that the federal government had not come clean with affected service members and their families for more than a decade. Initially, the government even went so far as to deny that there was a serious health problem. It was not until the late 1990s that there was some acknowledgment of the dangers of Camp Lejeune water. Even still, many were not notified of their exposure and the dangers that they faced.

Another problem keeping victims from getting compensation is that these illnesses often took years to develop. Toxins remained in the body for a long time, and the effects could take decades to manifest themselves. By the time that the exposed person developed an illness, the statute of repose may have already passed.

The Statute of Repose Was the Death Knell for Legal Actions

There was no exception in the statute of repose, even when the polluter did not figuratively come clean within the ten-year period. By hiding the ball from the victims, the government managed to escape liability under the North Carolina law. This was made clear in a 2014 Supreme Court case that effectively was the death knell for Camp Lejeune victims’ right to file a lawsuit. It was clear that Congress was going to have to act for victims to have any chance at justice. Even the Veterans Administration’s efforts to give benefits to victims who developed certain illnesses did not often result in any type of compensation for people who were sickened.

Federal cases do not operate independently of state laws, even if they proceed in state courts. If there is a state procedural rule that takes away a right to sue, it will still operate to keep victims from suing in federal court.

As far as timelines are concerned, the Camp Lejeune Justice Act passed relatively quickly. It is not uncommon for laws to die in committee and be reintroduced in successive sessions of Congress. Here, the key was that the Camp Lejeune Justice Act was initially supported by members of both parties. The legislation also found a vehicle for quicker passage, being attached to another piece of legislation that was viewed as a must-pass law. The Camp Lejeune Justice Act was added to the PACT Act, which provides health care to veterans who were sickened after exposure to toxic burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Supreme Court had already held that the statute of repose in the North Carolina law was not preempted by CERCLA’s statute of limitations because the two were entirely separate things. Therefore, the right to sue under North Carolina state law or CERCLA was permanently lost to Camp Lejeune victims. Congress needed to do something that created a different cause of action that would have allowed these people to sue, and that is the precise point of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act.

The PACT ACT Was Intended to Keep Our Promises to Our Veterans

The entire PACT Act recognized that people who serve this country are exposed to hazardous substances in various forms. Both the law and the Veterans Administration do not necessarily have the flexibility to adjust to ensure that service members are compensated for the exposure to toxins that were the hallmark of their era of service. For example, 9/11 toxin exposure was not covered under existing laws and needed new legislation to provide for both health care and compensation.

The crux of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act was to create a new federal cause of action to sue for the contaminated water at the base. There was no previous ability to sue under federal or state law because of the statute of repose. Accordingly, the bill created a new way for victims to be able to sue. The legislative solution adopted by Congress here differs from the state laws that temporarily waived the statute of limitations to enable sex abuse victims to financially recover for their damages. In those cases, the states temporarily suspended the statute of limitations. Here Congress created a short-term time-limited new cause of action for victims.

The PACT ACT Created a New Federal Cause of Action

The heading of the main part of the statute is for a “federal cause of action relating to water at Camp Lejeune. The first major provision of the legislation is the part that states who may sue for exposure. The initial eligibility requirement was that potential plaintiffs must have spent at least 30 days on the base between August 1, 1953, and ending December 31, 1987 to be exposed to the water. This was the period when there was water contamination. Anyone who lived or worked on base, or was otherwise exposed to the water, is potentially eligible to file a lawsuit.

The law does establish some element of causation, where you must show a connection between the tainted water and your illnesses. You do not have to establish the tie with 100% certainty.

Your Burden of Proof in a Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Lawsuit

According to the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, you must show the following in order to successfully prove your lawsuit:

  • The harm was caused by exposure to the tainted water
  • The harm was associated with exposure to the water
  • The harm was linked with exposure to the water
  • Exposure to the water increased the likelihood of the harm

The standard of proof that you must show is the preponderance of the evidence. This is the same exact standard that is used in every single civil case. You must show that it was more likely than not that the contaminated water caused your illness. This is not the same nearly100% standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt that is required in a criminal case. If we had to assign a numerical probability to the preponderance of the evidence, it is 51%. In reality, the burden of proof would be easier to meet because the law allows the use of studies. You would still need an attorney to help you establish the causation and your exposure to the water.

The Camp Lejeune Cause of Action is Not Indefinite

According to the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, this cause of action is only valid for two years from the date that President Biden signed the legislation into law. The time clock began to run on August 12th, 2022. Once this time expires the cause of action goes away, and the North Carolina statute of repose will again keep victims from suing. Here, the statute of limitations is either 2 years or 6 months after the federal agency has denied the claim.

The statute also requires that all lawsuits related to the Camp Lejeune water cases must be filed in federal court in the Eastern District of North Carolina. The injured plaintiff has every right to a jury trial if they request it.

The Camp Lejeune Justice Act does not allow a plaintiff to head straight to court. Federal law still applies to the claims process. Specifically, 28 USC. 2675 requires a final agency disposition of the claim before a lawsuit can be filed. Here, the agency responsible must respond to a claim before the case can head to court. The agency must deny the claim and issue the denial to you in writing.

There are several more considerations to keep in mind. Congress has established this new cause of action as the exclusive remedy for injured victims. Once they file a lawsuit pursuant to this new cause of action, they cannot sue the United States government under any other law. In addition, any compensation that the victim or their family receives under this new cause of action cannot impact their ability to receive disability benefits under veterans law. Finally, a court cannot award the plaintiffs punitive damages against the United States government.

Act Now to Seek Financial Compensation for Your Injuries

Now that Congress has passed this law to reverse Decades of Injustice against Camp Lejeune victims, it is up to you to act. Your next step should be to contact an experienced attorney who can help you file the claim necessary for you to get financial compensation. You must make this call in a short period of time. Otherwise, you would lose the right to get compensation. Our attorneys are standing by waiting to hear from you and ready to help you fight for the justice that has been denied to you for so long.