Sep 28, 2023

Dueling Proposals Pitched for Camp Lejeune Toxic Water Trials

Posted by : ZeroRisk Cases Marketing

Kaustuv Basu
Senior Enterprise Reporter

  • Justice Department, plaintiffs’ counsel diverge on case management plan
  • More than 1,110 suits filed so far in North Carolina court

The first substantive clash between lawyers for the Justice Department and potential victims of toxic waters at Camp Lejeune emerged late Monday when both sides filed dueling proposals on how the courts should manage what could be thousands of lawsuits over payouts by the government.

Attorneys for potential victims argued that the cases should be consolidated to include multiple plaintiffs in a single trial, and with a starting date in the first quarter of 2024.

Marines sickened by their tours at Camp Lejeune “have waited nearly 40 years to have the right to present their case in Court,” they wrote in a motion filed in the Eastern District of North Carolina. “They deserve their day in court without further delay.”

Justice Department lawyers said in their own filing that they would need more time to prepare, agreeing only that starting sometime in 2024 was possible. But they opposed consolidating cases.

“A determination of whether and in what circumstances multiple-plaintiff trials might be appropriate should only be made after the parties have engaged in discovery,” the government attorneys said.

The North Carolina judges overseeing the Camp Lejeune lawsuits are expected to decide on a course of action in a matter of weeks.

The case management proposals come as more than 93,000 claims have been filed since late last summer by veterans, their relatives or camp employees who blame their cancer, Parkinson’s disease and other health issues on the contaminated water at the North Carolina base. The Navy has settled none of the claims so far, and about 1,100 potential victims have already filed lawsuits in the district, according to its clerk of court.

Potential victims have until August 2024 to file their compensation claims with the Navy, and can sue if their claim is denied or remains unresolved six months after being submitted.

The pace of resolving the claims has frustrated veterans who have worked for years to get the government to acknowledge the impact of the Camp Lejeune water contamination.

Avoiding Inefficiencies

In another motion filed Monday, the plaintiffs’ lawyers tapped to be the lead counsel in the case defended their appointment by the district’s four judges, calling a challenge “meritless.”

Federal courts for 60 years have appointed lead counsels to “resolve common issues in pretrial proceedings in complex litigation involving numerous plaintiffs,” said the filing from lead lawyer J. Edward Bell III and his six co-lead counsels.

The structure proposed by the court was designed to avoid inefficiencies and chaos, they wrote, and flows from the discretion bestowed by Congress. “And the Court has exercised that discretion in a way that conforms to decades of judicial practice,” their motion said.

The filing came in response to a challenge filed this month by two South Carolina lawyers, Roy Willey and Blake Abbott, who argued that the court didn’t have the authority to appoint the lead counsel and force all other parties to consolidate under an “ordered leadership structure.”

“These positions grant leadership the right to decide the entire scope of litigation on behalf of Plaintiffs they do not represent, which could create large issues with the direction of litigation, as leadership may disagree with the route individual counsel will seek in their cases,” Willey and Abbott said in their motion.

The lead lawyers appointed by the court will have great influence in shaping a potential settlement that could impact at least tens of thousands of people and be worth billions of dollars for both victims and their lawyers.

About 1 million people were potentially affected by the toxic water at the North Carolina Marine base between 1953 and 1987, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The government could pay out as much as $21 billion to settle claims and lawsuits.

The case is Camp Lejeune Water Litigation v. United States of America, E.D.N.C., No. 7:23-cv-00897, Motion filed 8/28/23.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kaustuv Basu in Washington at kbasu@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John P. Martin at jmartin1@bloombergindustry.com and Bernie Kohn at bkohn@bloomberglaw.com

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