An endless barrage of TV and radio ads from attorneys seeking to represent former Marines, sailors and families poisoned for decades by contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, has prompted Republican lawmakers to call for capping their fees to ensure that veterans themselves receive settlement money.
GOP members of the House and Senate have introduced bills that would limit filing fees to 2% and contingency fees -- a portion paid to lawyers who successfully win a suit -- to 10%.
Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, who sponsored the Senate bill, said some attorneys reportedly are charging up to 60% for contingency fees.
"It's a simple bill but will have a huge impact on sick Marines and their families," Sullivan said Nov. 30 on the Senate floor while pressing the chamber to pass his bill without objection. "It will help them not have to deal with these unscrupulous trial lawyers."
The lawsuits are now permissible under a portion of the landmark Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT, Act, signed into law Aug. 10. The legislation included a pathway for victims of the decades-long contamination at the base to sue and recover damages.
Under the law, veterans or family members assigned to the installation or who lived there for at least 30 days between Aug. 1, 1953, and Dec. 31, 1987, and were harmed by exposure to the drinking water can file claims with the U.S. Navy, which has six months to decide the claim or reject it.
If a claim is rejected or the Navy doesn't respond in the appropriate time frame, those veterans and families may file suit in the U.S. District Court Eastern of North Carolina.
Those affected have until Aug. 10, 2024, to file a claim. While veterans or family members can complete the claim paperwork for the Navy themselves, the legislation prompted attorneys to rev up their advertising even before the PACT Act was signed.
Sullivan said attorneys have spent more than $1 billion on advertising to date.
"You can't turn on a TV in America without seeing ads from trial lawyers trying to get rich at the expense of sick Marines who served at Camp Lejeune," said Sullivan. "Worst of all, we knew this was coming. The Biden Justice Department warned us that, without a cap, predatory law firms could grab the lion's share of these judgments and leave Marines and their family members with crumbs."
Sullivan added that he selected the caps in the bill, S. 5130, the Protect Camp Lejeune Victims Ensnared by Trial-lawyers Scams Act, based on Justice Department recommendations.
Congress passed a law in 2012 that gave Camp Lejeune veterans access to health care and expedited benefits if they had one or more diseases presumed to be related to the contamination. It also required the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide health care benefits for family members with any water-related medical conditions.
But it did not provide compensation or damages -- benefits families have fought for years to obtain.
More than 1 million troops or their family members may have been affected by the contamination, which stemmed from multiple sources, including illegal dumping of chemicals by an off-installation dry cleaning company, but also improper disposal of industrial chemicals used by Marines and leaking underground storage tanks. Pollutants included tetrachloroethylene, solvents, benzene and vinyl chloride.
Introducing the House version of the bill on Tuesday, Illinois Rep. Mike Bost, who serves as the ranking Republican on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said veterans should not have to "endure high legal fees in order to have their day in court."
"Our Camp Lejeune veterans and their families have tolerated enough," Bost said in a press release .
Illinois Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, promised to work with lawmakers on legislation but said he opposed the caps, given the complexities of the cases.
Durbin, a former trial attorney, noted that in most workers' compensation cases or disability claims, attorneys fees run about one-third of the award, and for those that don't require proving causation, about 20%.
Many who file suit will have to prove their illnesses or injury were caused by the water, Durbin noted.
"At what point do you want to do that alone in a courtroom? I wouldn't want to do that without help," Durbin said Nov. 30 on the Senate floor. "You aren't going to get a competent attorney to represent Marines at 2%."
The American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars issued statements last month saying they support "reasonable fees" for the claims.
"The VFW believes there should be guardrails put in place to make sure that veterans are represented by individuals or organizations that follow the rule of law and aren't just looking to make a quick buck," Ryan Gallucci, deputy executive director of the VFW's office in Washington, D.C., said in a press release.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.