Posted in Newsletter on July 10, 2024

National Litigation Has Georgetown Roots

The deadline for filing claims related to the groundwater contamination that was present at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, from 1953 through 1987, is fast approaching in early August of 2024. News stories and advertising campaigns discussing groundwater contamination on base and the potential to bring a civil action have been running nationwide for years and are likely to ramp up as the filing deadline approaches.

What is often overlooked by news reports and advertising campaigns are the efforts that many people in the Carolinas, particularly those in Georgetown, South Carolina, have made for many years to bring the issue to the public’s attention.

In 1987, information was released indicating that the groundwater on Camp Lejeune contained hazardous levels of chemicals that were caused by fuel leaking from underground storage tanks into the groundwater supply starting in 1953. Although several diseases and specific cancers were ultimately linked to the contamination, several legal doctrines prevented a recovery against the United States under these circumstances. The United States is generally subject to liability when its negligence causes injuries to civilians under a law known as the Federal Tort Claims Act. However, the United States Supreme Court held in 1950 that service members who were injured on military bases during active duty could not bring suit under that law. Additional legal hurdles, such as the statute of repose in North Carolina (a specific type of statute of limitations that provides a hard deadline for bringing a claim even when the victim had no knowledge that they had been poisoned), provided a legal barrier for the families of service members who lived on base and were also poisoned by the groundwater from bringing negligence claims.

In 2008, Georgetown, South Carolina attorney Ed Bell (with whom Scott and Boo practiced for a number of years) had a chance encounter with Jerry Ensminger. Ensminger was a former Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune whose young daughter, Janey, died of leukemia in 1985 after being exposed to the toxic groundwater. Since that time, Ensminger had become an advocate for the veterans and the families of veterans who were stationed at Camp Lejeune. Bell was appalled at the details of the contamination that had since been released by the United States in detailed reports and groundwater studies and joined a group of lawyers in bringing an initial round of federal lawsuits in the Eastern District of North Carolina challenging many of these legal barriers. Although the cases dealt with acts and omissions by the government in Jacksonville, North Carolina, a federal panel on multidistrict litigation ultimately transferred the cases to the Northern District of Georgia (in close proximity to the EPA headquarters in Atlanta).

Over the course of the next decade, the litigation unfolded poorly as the veterans and their families faced a series of defeats on legal technicalities that were appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Despite this series of unfavorable rulings, the veterans and their families persisted in pressing forward until the cases were ultimately dismissed. At that point, the litigants asked the United States Supreme Court to intervene, though that petition was denied. After this denial, the litigants and their attorneys turned to their elected officials to seek special legislation to address the injustice that the litigants had challenged for over a decade in the court system. With the support of elected officials from several states from both major political parties, the litigants were ultimately successful in pressing for the passage of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, which was signed into law on Aug. 10, 2022. The Camp Lejeune Justice Act opened up a two-year period for veterans and their families to bring claims related to exposure to toxic groundwater in the Eastern District of North Carolina. The persistence of a small group of litigants and their attorneys in the face of having every legal avenue foreclosed for a period of over 10 years ultimately gave the opportunity for tens of thousands of veterans and their families to avail themselves of their legal rights.

With the two-year claims period now closing in August of 2024, the time to seek justice through the filing of an administrative claim with the United States is now. If you or a loved one were exposed to water between the years of 1953 and 1987 at Camp Lejeune and suffered an illness, don’t hesitate to contact us before that date. We take great pride in representing our veterans and their families and would be privileged to assist you.