Lawyers are seeking clients for Camp Lejeune water claims. But veterans may be better off waiting.
It’s been more than a month since President Joe Biden signed a bill that makes it easier for people to sue the government for illnesses from contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, the military training facility in Jacksonville, N.C.
By some estimates, more than 1 million veterans, family members and civilian workers may have been exposed to the dangerous chemicals that leaked into the ground from sources on and off the base.
Details are still unclear about how the government will handle what could be one of the largest mass civil cases in history. But personal injury attorneys aren’t waiting.
The new law triggered an instant wave of advertisements aimed at steering potential claimants to lawyers.
“We expected that to happen, but we did not expect it to be a full court press the day of signing,” said Pat Murray, the national legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Potential claimants only have until August 2024 to file.
But Murray said neither that deadline nor the urgent-sounding ads are a reason to rush to sign an attorney. He said for now, the VFW is advising veterans to consult an accredited veteran service officer at a group like his or a state veterans affairs office. Those advocates are trained to navigate the sometimes confusing bureaucracy of benefits.
The ads have helped spread word about the new law, but at least a few have been misleading, mistaken or even predatory.
Murray said one company was seeking a $5,000 fee.
“If you're denied, they'll return 50% of that fee, but the veteran who sent it to us was not even on the list that was even eligible, so he would have just wasted $2,500," Murray said. "We just don't want people throwing money down the drain with false hopes."
The law allows compensation for a long list of illnesses if the claimant lived on Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days between 1953 and 1987. The estimated total payout could reach nearly $7 billion over the next 10 years.
Those who believe they qualify can file a claim with the Navy via a simple online form that doesn’t require an attorney. That claim form is then filed with the Office of the Judge Advocate General of the Navy’s Tort Claims Unit.
Later, the process is expected to get more complicated.
“The law just gives a very basic framework,” Murray said. "There's a lot of questions that we still have that need answers before we're 100% comfortable giving someone the recommendation to sign your name on the dotted line that may require money.”
One issue is that some veterans already receive VA benefits tied to conditions from Lejeune water.
Settlements through the new law are expected to offset — meaning they'll be deducted from — a veteran's existing VA benefits, but the details of exactly how aren’t clear.
Murray said under one potential scenario, veterans getting VA benefits could actually lose money by accepting a settlement from the Navy.
“We believe the regulations are going to get posted here in the next couple months,” Murray said. “So we're not asking people to wait for two years, obviously; we'll run out of time. But we are asking people to wait about a month.”
The Navy declined WUNC's request for an interview about the settlements. In an emailed response, it also declined to answer questions, including how it will handle offsets, when it will start settling cases, or how it will decide the amount of compensation for each claimant.
It's also not clear how hard the Navy will try to settle claims before they end up in court. Quick settlements could make the process less cumbersome and avoid overwhelming the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, which is designated to handle suits stemming from the law.
Ed Bell, a South Carolina attorney who’s credited with writing parts of the new law, said he believes the Navy will come down on the side of fair settlements.
"Obviously, Congress has spoken, they want these cases resolved,” Bell said. “And I think I think the Navy understands that."
But while the process is being fleshed out, lawyers continue to aggressively hunt potential clients like Marine veteran Brian Amburgey, who served at Camp Lejeune in 1984 and then developed a rare cancer that has been linked to the chemicals in the water.
Recently, his VFW post in central Kentucky got some earnest visitors.
“Lawyers from Virginia, passing out flyers and their cards,” Amburgey said. “It’s just crazy.”
Amburgey has been involved in the fight for the law for several years, and he said he’s sticking with Bell, the attorney he’s had from the beginning.
He said other veterans seeing the ads should be careful to find lawyers who know the issues, unlike the experts in railroad accident compensation who visited his VFW post.
Some of the ads are making false claims that veterans already are winning settlements.
Amburgey said he was surprised to see his own face staring back from one ad, which he hadn’t given permission for. The ad insinuated he’d gotten a $35,000 settlement.
“I didn’t even get thirty-five cents!” he said.
Photo courtesy of Sanjay Parekh.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.