Stringfellow v. U.S. was filed within days of President Biden’s signing of the “Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act.” Section 804 of the law, also known as the “Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022” (Section 804) specifically addresses toxic exposure at Camp Lejeune.
Dark Secrets Allowed Federal Government to “Run out the Clock”
Thousands of service members and civilians who lived at Camp Lejeune have allegedly contracted diseases and chronic conditions that may be related to toxic chemicals. These include:
- kidney cancer;
- non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma;
- multiple myeloma;
- liver cancer;
- bladder cancer;
- chemically-induced Parkinson’s Disease;
- end-stage renal disease;
- systematic sclerosis/scleroderma; and
- cardiac defects.
Nonetheless, as medical evidence began to emerge about the link between these conditions and exposure to contaminated water, the federal government kept its secrets. When veterans and others made claims for compensation, the United States refused to pay.
The information about began to emerge in the late 2000s. And when these claims matured into lawsuits under the Federal Tort Claims Act, the claimants discovered that North Carolina’s ten-year statute of limitations had run out.
They were out of time. But this is where Section 804 becomes important.
The PACT Act
The PACT Act does a lot of things. The biggest headlines have been about veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and were exposed to open burn pits. Here is a link that describes what was burned, what the hazards are, and what to do if you believe you have been exposed.
But there are other toxic exposure recognition and protections in the PACT Act, as well. Agent Orange exposure, Gulf War exposures and radiation exposure are also included, as well as non-combatant injuries in the United States.
Camp Lejeune Residents
Section 804 expressly provides that:
“an individual . . . who resided, worked, or was otherwise exposed (including in utero exposure) for not less than 30 days during the period beginning on August 1, 1953, and ending on December 31, 1987, to water at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, that was supplied by, or on behalf of, the United States may bring an action in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina to obtain appropriate relief for harm that was caused by exposure to the water at Camp Lejeune.”
Section 804 does 6 important things:
- First, it requires that claims must be presented to the relevant federal agency before a lawsuit can be filed. If the federal agency fails to make a final disposition of a claim within six months of its filing, the claim is deemed denied, and the claimant may file an action in federal court;
- Second, the law makes clear that a plaintiff may obtain a financial recovery for a latent disease. This is crucial because symptoms may not appear until many years after exposure;
- Third, Section 804 lightens the plaintiff’s burden of proof on the issue of causation. A plaintiff need only show that the link between exposure to toxins in the water and the plaintiff’s medical condition is at least as likely as not. Practically, this excludes only situations where there is conclusive evidence that the medical condition is the result of a different cause, which is very rare;
- Fourth, Section 804 has its own statute of limitations. A Camp Lejeune lawsuit must be filed before the later of August 2024 or a date that is 180 days after the claim is denied by a federal agency. The North Carolina statute of limitations thus presents no barrier, as it had in previous lawsuits;
- Fifth, Section 804 specifically designates the Eastern District of North Carolina as the court where these lawsuits must be heard; and
- Finally, potential plaintiffs should be aware that Section 804 provides for an offset of any veterans’ disability benefits that an individual may be receiving.
What to do if you believe you were exposed to toxic chemicals in the water at Camp Lejeune
Now that financial recovery is possible for the harm that toxic exposure may have done to you or a loved one, it is important to act quickly. Although the time limits may appear generous, the process can be complicated. You should reach out to an experienced attorney as soon as possible.