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Analysis

Camp Lejeune Toxic Water Victims Still Wait for Justice

The Camp Lejeune Justice Act promised aid to Marines and families harmed by the base’s water. Over a year later, many claims are stuck in limbo.

(Illustration: Renzo Velez / POGO)

On August 10, 2022, President Joe Biden signed into law the Camp Lejeune Justice Act. The law allows those who were exposed to toxic water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune between 1953 and 1987 to seek financial compensation for cancers and other health problems linked to the water. 

Over those years, the drinking water at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, had been contaminated with toxic substances discharged from leaking underground storage tanks, industrial area spills, waste disposal sites, and an off-base dry cleaning business. But until the Camp Lejeune Justice Act passed, many who sought compensation for water-linked injuries and deaths were blocked by the state’s 10-year filing deadline.

The law gives victims until next August to file claims with the U.S. Navy or, if the Navy denies their claim or doesn’t issue a decision within six months, the local North Carolina federal district court.

Justice for the victims has long been delayed and denied. It was delayed for many years by military officials who covered up the contamination. After the government began notifying former residents, justice was denied to thousands whose claims were rejected by the Navy and the courts.

Now, more than halfway to the filing deadline, victims face new challenges: a gridlocked claim process, a frenzy of lawyers demanding an outsized share of the multi-billion-dollar settlement fund, and a suspicion that members of the team leading the litigation were chosen mostly because of connections.

A Clogged-Up Claims System

Over a year after the Camp Lejeune Justice Act became law, many victims are still waiting for the promised relief. Only a handful of claims have been settled. Only a tiny fraction of the payout — which could reach a total of $21 billion — has been disbursed.

Justice for the victims has long been delayed and denied.

When the law passed, the government was aware that approximately one million people were potentially exposed to the contaminated water at the base. However, the system the Department of Justice and the Navy created to process claims was overwhelmed almost immediately. Currently, more than 93,000 claims are pending review by the Navy, which has blamed its sluggish pace on a lack of resources. Many claims could wind up in the tiny North Carolina federal court, joining the more than 1,100 cases already on the docket.

“The Navy needs to step up its game,” federal Judge James Dever III said at a hearing earlier this year. Dever is one of four judges assigned to the Camp Lejeune cases. He pointedly noted that, if all one million potential claims were to come before the court, it would take “the life of the entire Roman Empire, 1,923 years” to resolve them.

Lack of Fee Cap Results in Lawyer Stampede

Administrative and judicial capacity aside, the victims face other difficulties. Most significantly, the Camp Lejeune Justice Act doesn’t include a cap on lawyer fees, leading some lawyers to demand an excessive share of the recovery. Some lawyers are reportedly charging victims as much as 40% to 50% of settlements, in addition to fees and expenses, while failing to inform them that payouts could be reduced by the amount of government benefits they’ve already received for their injuries.

To reach as many potential clients as possible, lawyers and law firms are spending millions of dollars on television and social media advertisements and telemarketing campaigns. Some of these outreach efforts might be stepping over the line of legality. Several law firms have been accused of using abusive telemarketing tactics to attract clients, in violation of the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

An early version of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act capped lawyer fees at 25% of the recovery, but that provision was later removed.

Behind these efforts lurk litigation funders, speculators who are loaning the lawyers billions of dollars in the expectation of receiving a healthy return on investment. Litigation funding is a new practice that is under a cloud of controversy. On one hand, it provides the capital needed to pursue complex or time-consuming legal actions against deep-pocketed opponents. On the other hand, it’s an industry that functions largely without rules or oversight. Funders can remain anonymous and exert influence on the outcome of the litigation. Lawmakers at a recent congressional hearing on this practice raised the possibility that foreign governments could secretly finance litigation in order to advance their geopolitical interests and gain access to sensitive government information. At least two law firms leading the Camp Lejeune litigation, the Bell Legal Group and Milberg Coleman Bryson Phillips Grossman, are reportedly backed by litigation funders.

An early version of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act capped lawyer fees at 25% of the recovery, but that provision was later removed. Recently, the Department of Justice and the Navy issued updated guidance stating that “attorneys’ fees for administrative settlements cannot exceed 20% of the award and attorneys’ fees for settlements of cases in litigation cannot exceed 25% of the award.” However, the guidance document states that it “does not have the force and effect of law,” nor does it explain how these caps will be enforced.

The Leadership Team: Concern About Connections

The Bell Legal Group is the law firm of J. Edward Bell III, who was the driving force behind the Camp Lejeune Justice Act. Bell is one of nine lawyers the court appointed in July to lead the litigation. The lead lawyers, in turn, appointed dozens more lawyers to serve on executive and steering committees to “assist and advise” the lead lawyers, “efficiently advance the Litigation,” and “ensure oversight, accountability and coordination” of the whole process.

It was hoped this new management structure would finally get claims moving and settlement checks issued. So far, it has largely failed to achieve a breakthrough. Moreover, people involved in the litigation have expressed concern to POGO that the composition of this leadership team relied more on familial and career connections than experience.

Several lawyers have links to the presiding judges. One of the court-appointed lead counsels is Mike Dowling, a former clerk for Judge Terrence Boyle. Two other lead counsels are from Ward and Smith, the law firm where Judge Louise Flanagan used to work and where her husband and Judge Boyle’s son now work. One of the executive committee members, Lynwood Evans, also works at Ward and Smith.

Other team members are related by blood or marriage. Executive committee member John Bash is the husband of co-lead counsel Zina Bash. Steering committee member Scott Overholt is the son of liaison counsel Hugh Overholt.

Victims told POGO these examples of nepotism and cronyism are adding to the frustration of waiting for years only to see the glimmer of hope offered by the Camp Lejeune Justice Act dimmed by opportunistic lawyers and an inefficient claim process.

Time Is Running Out

In early September, the Department of Justice and the Navy announced an “elective option” that provides a more streamlined claim process based on the length of a person’s exposure and the type of illness they developed. There have been murmurs of discontent with this option, which poses a dilemma for victims: Go for a quick settlement or roll the dice with a court proceeding that might bring a larger payout but could drag on for months or even years.

It’s been 70 years since toxic chemicals began leaking into the Camp Lejeune water supply. The full scope of the damage caused by decades of harm, neglect, secrecy, and inaction may never be known. Many victims, who include generations of Marines and their families, have passed away. Others continue to face crushing medical bills and expenses.

The casualties of the Camp Lejeune toxic water tragedy are tired of waiting for justice. They deserve to be made whole through a compensation process that is efficient, expeditious, and fair.

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