Camp Lejeune water contamination claims total about 5,000 so far, U.S. Navy says

Marines of the 26 Marine Expeditionary Unit embark on a CH-46 Helicopter at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina,. REUTERS/Randy Davey
  • Plaintiffs' lawyers estimate as many as half a million could come in

(Reuters) - About 5,000 claims over contaminated water at North Carolina Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune have been filed in the first month since new legislation removed roadblocks for the cases, according to the U.S. Navy, setting up the potential for one of the largest mass litigations in U.S. history.

The claims, filed with the Office of the Judge Advocate General of the Navy’s Tort Claims Unit in Norfolk, Virginia, are the first step for Marines and their family members to seek compensation for injuries sustained from contaminated drinking water on the base between 1953 and 1987 under a new process laid out in the PACT Act, a veterans’ healthcare and benefits bill signed by President Joe Biden on Aug. 10.

A spokeswoman for the JAG unit said in an email that "approximately 5,000" administrative claims have been filed since the legislation was signed.

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Attorneys representing clients from Camp Lejeune said they expect the number of claims to grow much higher. The Department of Health and Human Services' (DHHS) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry estimates as many as one million people may have been exposed to contamination, and attorneys estimate that up to 500,000 claims could be filed.

Edward Bell of Bell Legal Group was involved in the drafting of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, which was incorporated into the PACT Act. His firm filed 2,900 claims on the first day, and has filed an even 3,000 in the first month, he said.

Julia Merritt of Beasley Allen said her firm is representing thousands of clients in this case, and is filing batches of claims with the Judge Advocate General’s office each week. So far, they’ve filed 50, she said.

The act opens up a two-year period for military members and their families to file claims based on exposures to chemicals like trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, vinyl chloride and benzene. It's open to Marines who served on the base, their family members and contractors who worked there.

DHHS' Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry acknowledges that the chemicals likely increased the risk of cancer and other health problems for residents. But the government has relied on a 2016 court opinion to deny claims up until this point, saying the conditions didn't warrant lifting the government's sovereign immunity.

The Camp Lejeune Justice Act grants the claims an exception from governmental immunity protections and other laws and allows for claimants to file lawsuits in the Eastern District of North Carolina once they’ve gone through the administrative process.

If the Camp Lejeune cases approach plaintiffs' attorney estimates, it could trump the largest civil cases in U.S. history. The biggest, involving 3M’s military earplugs, has seen more than 300,000 actions filed, according to the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation. Before that, claims over asbestos products dominated, including more than 192,000 actions filed since it began in 1991.

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