Contaminated Water Exposure At Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune In North Carolina
August 2022 – This month, a landmark remedy was enacted into law that could help thousands of sickened veterans and their families. The new law applies to people who resided, worked, or were otherwise exposed to contaminated water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and suffered latent disease. The Marine Corps discovered volatile organic compounds in drinking water from two water treatment plants on the base in the 1980s. The exposure has since been linked to cancer, chronic disease, and birth defects.
A new cause of action. The Camp Lejeune Justice Act creates a new federal cause of action for anyone exposed to contaminated water at the base for at least 30 days (including in utero exposure) between 1953 and 1987. It includes many provisions to help those injured. For example, it establishes a lower burden of proof than what is traditionally required in toxic exposure cases: Injured parties will be required only to provide evidence of the relationship between their exposure and their harm to establish that a causal relationship exists—or is at least as likely as not to exist.
However, like other claims against the government, no punitive damages are available, and claimants must first pursue an administrative remedy. Claims must be filed in the Eastern District of North Carolina, the jurisdiction covering the base. Any remedy brought under this new provision would foreclose other remedies. There are also mandatory offsets for any recovery by the Veterans Administration, Medicare, and Medicaid to ensure that claimants cannot recover the costs of their medical expenses twice.
From the date of the legislation’s enactment, Aug. 10, 2022, injured veterans and their families will have two years to file a claim, or 180 days after an administrative remedy is denied under 28 U.S.C. §2675. The bill expressly states that no otherwise applicable statute of repose will apply to claims filed under the new cause of action.
Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). The Camp Lejeune Justice Act also specifically forbids the government from asserting immunity under the FTCA’s discretionary function exception. The federal government commonly uses this defense, including to dismiss many past Camp Lejeune toxic exposure cases.
The legislation precludes remedies for any claim arising out of combatant-related activities. However, by creating a federal cause of action for exposure claims, the Feres doctrine—the U.S. Supreme Court doctrine that typically blocks active-duty servicemembers’ claims—will not apply to these claims.