The US Marine Corps Base of Camp Lejeune at North Carolina was supposed to be exciting grounds to prepare warfighters for humanitarian overseas missions. However, the US Navy found three of its wells – the Hadnot Point, the Tarawa Terrace, and the Holcomb Boulevard – contaminated with highly toxic Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).
Veterans and their families who had consumed the Camp’s water between 1953 and 1987 were at risk of developing health issues, such as Parkinson’s disease, adult leukemia, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, bladder cancer, multiple myeloma, and more.
Cases of deaths and injuries were reported over the years that followed, but it was only after the Camp Lejeune Justice Act (CLJA) was passed in 2022 that victims became eligible for compensation. Camp Lejeune went down in US history as the worst water contamination crisis and the largest mass tort litigation. But is it a matter of gross negligence on the part of the Federal government? Keep reading to find out.
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Unique Challenges in the Camp Lejeune Lawsuit Cases
Even until June 2023, the total number of Camp Lejeune administrative claims stood at 65,000. That is when the Department of Justice urged the Federal judges of North Carolina to accelerate their plans for lawsuit management.
The problem was that without a comprehensive plan in place, the government directly faced the challenge of settling the Camp Lejeune lawsuit payout per person for 663 separate lawsuits. Within a week, the total number of Camp Lejeune claims had reached the 70,000 mark.
Along with the problem of slow claims management, the court also faced the challenge of ambiguous allegations and defenses.
The Federal Government’s ‘Barebones’ Defenses Challenged
In June 2023, as many as 122 plaintiffs complained that the government’s responses were, at best, “barebones defenses.” This could indicate that the government was simply trying to avoid bearing responsibility for the matter.
Barebones defenses are vague or unclear responses given to a plaintiff’s allegations. These could include bare recitations of the law, conclusions derived without supporting facts, and attempts to merely attack the plaintiff’s allegations.
The Court of Law requires the defendant to offer affirmative defenses that prove their evidence to:
- Be credible
- Negate civil liability, even when proven that the defendant did commit the alleged acts
Furthermore, the US government (defendant in the case) also believed that the Camp Lejeune lawsuits were ordinary negligence lawsuits.
Understanding a Negligence Lawsuit and the Counterclaim
A negligence lawsuit is filed on the basis of personal injury when a person or entity acts carelessly, thereby causing injury to others. The party becomes legally liable to bear responsibility for the negligence. In a negligence claim, it is important to show proof of failure to meet reasonable duty on the accused’s part.
The plaintiff of a negligence lawsuit needs to ensure the following four essential elements are present for validity –
The first step to prove is whether the defendant owed a certain level of reasonable duty towards the plaintiff. In the Camp Lejeune case, the government did owe the veterans the responsibility of close inspection of the matter and early action (which it failed to perform).
Once the plaintiff has proved the defendant’s legal duty in the matter, it is also important to prove that the defendant failed to perform their duty faithfully. The government not only took decades to intervene in the case of Camp Lejeune, but full disclosure was also withheld. Not only that, but the Navy took nearly four years to shut down the contaminated wells at the Base, despite knowing the toxic conditions.
The third element is causation, where the plaintiff must prove that the defendant foresaw the possible dangers and still went ahead with the action that caused injuries. In the Camp Lejeune case, it is a matter of debate whether the government officials knew full well about the repercussions of letting the matter slide for decades. In any case, the dangers of VOCs were known, so the possibility of causation is high.
As a part of the fourth element, the plaintiff must prove that their injuries were a direct result of the defendant’s negligence or actions. This aspect will vary on a case-to-case basis because while some plaintiffs are able to prove that their injuries were directly linked to Camp Lejeune’s contaminated water, others are finding it challenging to stand against the powerful Federal government.
On the surface, the Camp Lejeune toxic water lawsuit case looks like a negligence lawsuit. According to TorHoerman Law, the plaintiffs are not filing ordinary negligence lawsuits as the new law (Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022, signed by President Joe Biden) allows them to file such claims.
This means the Bill or Act also prohibits the US government from asserting any kind of litigation immunity as a lawsuit response. Hence, Camp Lejeune lawsuits are not simple negligence lawsuits.
The Possibility of a Non-Substantive Motion to Dismiss
On one side, the government had misunderstandings regarding the type of lawsuits filed; on the other, Judge Terrence W. Boyle found that the plaintiffs’ complaints lacked specificity. A hearing was held in which 122 plaintiffs (represented by six attorneys) claimed that there were major pitfalls in the government’s barebones defenses.
However, the government also rightfully counter-claimed that the defenses had to be broad, given that the plaintiff’s complaints were vague. The government stated that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim, filing vague complaints that a dry cleaner caused the water contamination. Some continued water consumption despite knowing the toxicity issues. The latter can never be argued at a trial.
This created the possibility of a non-substantive motion to dismiss, in which the allegations placed by the plaintiff are found to be wanting, vague, or ambiguous, meaning the plaintiff has failed to accurately allege the cause of the action. As a result, they will have to replead their allegations within a specified time period.
This motion gives the defendant the advantage because if the plaintiff is unable to articulate their allegation in a distinct and specific manner, they may end up abandoning some or all of the case.
Working towards a Path of Settlements
Despite constant roadblocks since the first filing, attorneys are placing immense pressure on the Federal Court to hasten Camp Lejeune settlements and payouts. The US Navy estimates that there are at least 500,000 water contamination claims, out of which nearly 125,000 could be meritorious claims.
Plaintiffs are trying their best to accelerate the process through reliable attorneys as fears of the lawsuit being dragged on for years linger. Some plaintiffs are too old or too diseased and could succumb to an early demise.
If the US Navy and the Federal government are deliberately trying to delay claims settlements, this is certainly not a matter of mere negligence on their part.