The Department of Justice announced that attorneys could charge no more than a 25% contingency fee in the ongoing Camp Lejeune water contamination lawsuit.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), who pressed for limits during the debate over the measure, called the move long overdue. “For the past year, law firms across the country have unleashed a billion-dollar-plus ad campaign, with many aiming to steal the bulk of the compensation due to Marines,” he said at a press conference on Capitol Hill.
The Defense Department has estimated that as many as one million people may have been sickened by toxic water at the base during a thirty-four-year period.
“Veterans deserve fair consideration of their cases and deserve protection from predatory law firms looking to make a profit off the pain they have already suffered,” American Legion National Commander Daniel Seehafer said. “This was welcome news for thousands of veterans who have been impacted.”
Legion leaders and several other advocacy groups are still pushing for further legislation to codify the caps but said the Justice Department’s move ensures that veterans will be protected for the near future.
Sullivan said the next step is to make veterans aware of the policy so they can avoid legal firms that try to reap larger windfalls. “We do not want sick Marines and their families getting scammed,” he said. “If someone charges over these fees, the [Justice Department] will go after them. And that’s a good story.”
Contingency Fees Explained
Lawmakers waved the green starting flag for the Camp Lejeune water contamination lawsuit in August 2022, when President Biden signed the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (PACT Act). This law contained a provision overriding North Carolina’s statute of repose. Over a year later, the lawsuit continues with no settlement in sight. Hourly rates (many lawyers charge more than $1,000 per hour) would effectively shut veterans out of this lawsuit. So, to give them access to compensation and justice, Camp Lejeune water contamination lawsuit attorneys charge contingency fees.
This fee is contingent (dependent) on the outcome. If the case does not settle and a court sides with the defendant, the contingency fee is zero. If a lawyer obtains a successful outcome, a settlement, or a favorable trial verdict, the contingency fee applies.
Attorneys are dedicated to victims, but this dedication does not pay the rent. They must be compensated for their time and efforts, just like everyone else.
Additionally, attorneys usually advance all litigation costs, such as filing fees, expert witness fees, and deposition fees. All these fees could total several million dollars in a case the size of the Camp Lejeune water contamination lawsuit. The attorneys in the case divide these fees, much like friends dining together at Chili’s divide the check.
Admittedly, attorneys’ fees and cost reimbursement take a significant bite out of a victim’s settlement. However, attorney-negotiated settlements are about three times higher, on average, than non-attorney-negotiated settlements.
We should translate another key Legalese phrase we used in this section. A statute of repose applies to injuries related to construction defects. The SOR presumes that buildings, water wells, and other construction projects no longer have a usable life after a certain number of years. So, if an injury occurs after that time period expires, that injury is not the builder’s fault.
In this case, the injury is poisoned water, the builder is the United States Marine Corps, and the usable life, as determined by the North Carolina legislature, is ten years. Therefore, compensation is unavailable for any water poisoning injuries that occurred more than 10 years after the wells were dug.
Water poisoning injuries, such as cancer, often take several decades to develop. Therefore, these victims did not know they were injured until the SOR lapsed. Before the PACT Act, North Carolina judges dismissed several Camp Lejeune lawsuits on procedural grounds, citing the SOR.
The PACT Act’s SOR suspension expires in 2024. When the case finally settles, hopefully in late 2024, that settlement could be extremely large. As of October 2023, victims have claimed over $3 trillion (with a “t”) in damages.
Settlements vs. Court Verdicts
Many victims do not understand why lawyers have a settlement-first attitude. We completely understand. No one wants a legal advocate who looks for an easy way out.
In court cases, settlement is a process. Attorneys for each side prepare their cases just like they would if the case went to trial. The settlement talks themselves are something of a mini-trial. Usually, a professional mediator listens to arguments and evidence from both sides and then guides the two sides toward settlement.
Out-of-court settlements end cases much sooner, so victims receive their compensation sooner. The trial process is much longer than the settlement process. The appeals process could be even longer.
On a related note, settlements are final. So, instead of tying up the case in appeals, the defendant must immediately write a check.
This process also gives victims more control over the outcome. Victims have the absolute right to accept or reject any settlement offer. If a judge or jury returns a verdict a victim does not like, the victim is stuck.580
Incidentally, a class-action settlement, like a future Camp Lejeune settlement, is a structured settlement. Usually, victims who stepped forward early and whose lawyers did most of the heavy lifting get most of the settlement money. Victims who jump on the bandwagon at the last minute get the leftovers.
So, if you lived or worked at Camp Lejeune between 1953 and 1987 and have a long-term illness, we urge you to speak to an attorney ASAP.
The Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Lawsuit
The Camp Lejeune water contamination problem occurred at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, from 1953 to 1987. During that time, United States Marine Corps (USMC) personnel and families at the base bathed in and ingested tap water contaminated with harmful chemicals at all concentrations from 240 to 3400 times current safe levels. An undetermined number of former residents later developed cancer or other ailments, which could be due to the contaminated drinking water.
Over the years, the USMC consistently covered up evidence of water contamination. For example, a 1994 Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry report about benzene in Camp Lejeune water somehow never made it into the official record.
The coverup finally began unraveling in 1999, when officials notified former residents they “may have” used contaminated water. By that time, millions of people had been injured. Since the USMC failed to step up and do the right thing, the lawyers must now get involved.
For more information about your rights and responsibilities in this matter, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A.