The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022 (the “Act”) which allows servicemembers who have been exposed to contaminated water at the Marine Corps Base at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina to bring legal action against the federal government. Servicemembers who lived on the base and used the water for drinking, cooking and washing have developed a variety of serious, life-threatening diseases over the last few decades. The carve-out in the legislation for initiating legal action against the federal government is a departure from the long-standing ban on lawsuits against the federal government by servicemembers pertaining to military matters, which was established by the United States Supreme Court in Feres v United States, 340 U.S. 135 (1950).
What happened at Camp Lejeune?
Servicemembers and their families who lived at the military base at Camp Lejeune were exposed to dangerous chemicals from their primary water source for decades. In 1982, the U.S. government detected dangerous chemicals in the groundwater at Camp Lejeune, but officials estimate that servicemembers have been exposed to these chemicals in the drinking water since the 1950s. The water wells on base, which were closed in 1985, contained various chemicals including trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene and vinyl chloride. The contamination at Camp Lejeune is considered one of the most widespread and far-reaching instances of water pollution in the history of the United States.
Medical studies have linked these chemicals to certain serious health conditions and diseases. Individuals who were exposed to chemicals at Camp Lejeune have been diagnosed with leukemia, anemia, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer, infertility, miscarriage, Parkinson’s disease, and other diseases. Pregnant women and young children on the base had the greatest risk of exposure to these conditions. Injuries can include the below:
- Bladder cancer
- Breast cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Female infertility
- Hepatic steatosis
- Kidney cancer
- Lung cancer
- Multiple myeloma
- Myelodysplastic syndromes
- Neurobehavioral effects
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Renal toxicity
How has Veterans Affairs Responded to the Crisis?
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) provides medical services to affected servicemembers and their families. The VA offers free healthcare for qualified individuals who were exposed to the contaminants at Camp Lejeune between August 1, 1953 and December 31, 1987. However, the VA benefits do not provide an avenue for servicemembers or families to bring legal action against the federal government for negligently maintaining the water source and exposing servicemembers and their families to toxic chemicals.
How does the Camp Lejeune Justice Act Address Injuries from Contaminated Water?
The Act allows injured servicemembers and their families to file claims against the federal government. Under the legislation, a representative of a person who had exposure to the contaminated water and was injured may also bring a claim against the federal government. For families whose loved ones died as a result of medical conditions caused by exposure to the contaminated water, this provision allows them to redress their injuries. The Act also establishes certain conditions for bringing a claim. Only servicemembers whose exposure occurred over a minimum of 30 days between August 1, 1953 and December 31, 1987 may file a claim. In addition, claimants must demonstrate a causal connection between their injuries and exposure to the tainted water.
The legislation is headed to the Senate for approval before it is given to the President to sign into law.