A new piece of legislation— one that Ward and Smith lobbied heavily for—is poised to allow people who were exposed to contaminated water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune to seek compensation for injuries and other damages.
The Honoring Our PACT Act of 2022, which includes the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, has gained bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, and President Biden has publicly stated his support for its passage.
The Honoring Our PACT Act (& Camp Lejeune Justice Act) was reintroduced on the House floor on the night of July 13th and gained passage by a vote of 342-88, a much higher margin of victory than the vote in March.
It was reintroduced due to budgetary amendments and is now awaiting a vote in the Senate. If passed by the Senate, it will go to President Biden for a final signature into law.
What is the Camp Lejeune Justice Act?
The Camp Lejeune Justice Act (H.R. 2192) is a bill that would allow veterans, family members, non-military (civilian) workers, contractors, and any other person who lived or worked at the base to file claims to recover damages for harm from exposure to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina between August 1, 1953, and December 31, 1987.
No claims can be filed until after the bill is signed into law. The hope is that the Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Lawsuits will finally allow victims to be compensated for their injuries after decades of being denied access to justice.
How did the Camp Lejeune Justice Act come about?
The Camp Lejeune Justice Act has been a long-time coming. The decades of water contamination at Camp Lejeune resulted in tragic medical conditions and death for countless people stationed and working at the base, and until now, attempted amends have been insufficient.
In the past, multiple attempts have been made to rectify the situation and compensate victims with healthcare benefits and other payments:
- In 2010, the wife of a Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune filed the first lawsuit over contaminated water. Laura Jones was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.
- In 2012, President Obama signed into law H.R. 1627. The Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 granted benefits to some service members who were exposed to toxic water at the base.
- In 2017, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced a list of presumptive diseases and conditions related to Camp Lejeune water contamination. This list spurred a rise in claims from veterans for their presumptive conditions, but many people were, unfortunately, denied the compensation they desperately needed.
Since 2008, Ed Bell of the Bell Legal Group, based in South Carolina, has worked tirelessly to spearhead the latest efforts to bring justice to Camp Lejeune Water Contamination issues. Ed brought together a “dream team” to work with lawmakers, victims, and advocates Jerry Ensminger and Mike Partain to craft a just legislative solution. Former Federal Judge and Congressman John Napier was a part of this team, and helped to draft the resulting legislation, joined by retired U.S. Magistrate Judge George Kosko.
Through these heroic efforts, the Camp Lejeune Justice Act was introduced by North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis in November 2021. It addresses Camp Lejeune Contaminated Water ("CLCW") and seeks a path for justice for Marines and others on base who suffered due to the CLCW.
The original release states:
“The legislation proposes to correct unfair legal barriers unique to Marine families stationed at Camp Lejeune due to an anomaly in the application of North Carolina law in the federal court system by establishing a new federal cause of action for individuals exposed to CLCW. This enables individuals affected by toxic exposure at Camp Lejeune to bring suit before the district court for the Eastern District of North Carolina to present evidence for injuries caused by exposure to CLCW."
The late Congressman Walter Jones and Representative Greg Murphy, M.D. were also leading proponents of a legislative solution. Representative Murphy was the co-sponsor of the bill in the House, and utilized his deep ties to the medical community to obtain further support for the legislation. Without their steadfast support, this legislation would not have become a reality.
Ward and Smith’s Involvement in the Legislative Effort
As a law firm with nearly 100 attorneys and offices throughout eastern North Carolina, attorneys at Ward and Smith have been aware of Camp Lejeune’s Water Contamination issue for decades. One of our attorneys, Retired Major General Hugh R. Overholt, has been particularly passionate about creating a better path forward for impacted Marines, their families, and others who were hurt by the CLCW.
Retired Major General Overholt worked for years on this Act. Due to his highly regarded non-partisan judgement, he was intimately involved from the inception in the strategic planning and detailed execution of the legislative effort to make this course of action a reality for the Marines and their families. He served as the Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Army from 1985-89, and as a resident of our New Bern office, lives less than an hour from Camp Lejeune.
What is the Honoring Our PACT Act of 2022?
The Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 (H.R. 3967) is a bill that “addresses health care, presumption of service-connection, research, resources, and other matters related to veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during military service.”
The Honoring Our PACT Act has passed both the House by a vote of 256-174, and the Senate by a vote of 84-14. President Biden put out a statement that said he would sign the Honoring Our PACT Act into law as soon as possible.
What will the PACT Act Accomplish?
This bill goes further than compensating Camp Lejeune toxic water victims. The PACT Act will guarantee a variety of benefits that were previously unavailable to veterans.
According to the most recent summary of the bill:
Eligibility is provided for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical care, including mental health services and counseling, to veterans who:
- Participated in a toxic exposure risk activity (a qualifying activity that requires a corresponding entry in an exposure tracking record system)
- Served in specific locations on specified dates
- Deployed in support of a specified contingency operation.
What is the Current Status of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act and the Honoring Our PACT Act?
The bipartisan support for this bill is strong in both the House (where it has passed twice) and Senate (where the bill is currently awaiting its second vote). If the Senate passes the bill, all that will remain is the President's signature for the bill to become law.
What are the Next Steps?
As mentioned previously, the next steps for the Honoring Our PACT Act and the Camp Lejeune Justice Act are:
- Second Passage in the Senate
- Final signature from President Biden
- Implementation and legal proceeding
While we do not yet have a clear timeline on when the next steps will occur, one thing is clear: impacted veterans and their families will need a great deal of patience.
The Known Unknowns
Once the Honoring our PACT Act becomes law, the process forward in this unique circumstance will be built in the Eastern District of North Carolina "from the ground up."
Claims being made under this legislation will be unique in many ways. First, the claims date back as far as seven decades. Second, they require an administrative filing before the filing of a lawsuit. Third, the legislation waives the government's immunity that typically applies to injuries and damages sustained by military members while on active duty. Fourth, the legislation requires all lawsuits to be filed exclusively in the Federal Courts of the Eastern District of North Carolina, creating a potentially very high volume of cases in this District.
Charles Ellis, one of the key attorneys working on behalf of impacted Marines explained, "The important step to take soon after the legislation is enacted is for each impacted person—whether a Marine, family member, or civilian worker—to file the administrative claim for their injury or the death of their loved one.”
Ellis continued, “The clock on that administrative claim starts when President Biden signs the bill and ends two years later. That administrative claim serves as the legal equivalent of holding their place in line for their case to be adjudicated. Attorneys will have a short window to make sure that everyone who has been impacted is able to have their day in court."