(WSPA) – By now you may have seen one too many commercials about water contamination at Camp Lejeune. It was one of the largest water contamination cases in U.S. history, dating back to the 1950s through the 80s.

But why are these ads running now? Should you trust the ads coming from one law firm over another?

7NEWS looked into what veterans and their families should know before signing up with an attorney in this Consumer Exclusive, Camp Lejeune Lawsuits.

What happened?

They signed up, knowing the risks, but it was the hidden dangers in the water at Camp Lejeune that exposed an estimated 1 million soldiers and their families over three decades to lethal toxins.

Peter Butchart, who served from 1956 to ’62 spent three summers at that Marine Corps Base in Jacksonville, North Carolina, and said the water tasted foul.

“Oh yeah, we knew the water was bad, but you know, we were young, we would think well, Marine Corp is not going to do anything bad to us like that,” Butchart said.

In 1980, the base began testing the well water in response to new Environmental Protection Agency regulations and discovered toxic solvents like Trichloroethylene (TCE), Tetrachloroethylene (PCE), Benzene and other harmful compounds. The sources included a nearby dry cleaner and fuel tank leaks.

Bob Burns and his family came to Camp Lejeune one year later, but he said he and his fellow marines were never told about the contamination even when the wells were decommissioned in the mid-80s.

7NEWS obtained documents dating back to 1980-82 of the testing results, where Granger Laboratories wrote: “Water highly contaminated with other chlorinated hydrocarbons (solvents)!” The tester even included the exclamation mark.

Documents from 1979 show the government knew the adverse effects of TCE, PCE and other solvents, and yet Burns and his fellow marines continued to drink the well water while on base for years. The thought leaves this man of few words with a sour taste in his mouth.

“Accountability. My wife has a lot of medical problems. My daughter,” said Burns.

It is unclear exactly when a majority of marines and their families affected were notified. 7News obtained a notice dated September of 2008. Others say the early 2000’s was the first time of mass contact with Marines about the water contamination through IRS mailings.

Why couldn’t veterans sue before?

Either way, when the truth came out over the next few decades.

Ed Bell, a founding partner at Bell Legal Group and President of the Charleston School of Law, said the statute of limitations had run out for veterans to sue; in the late 2000s, he tried.

“The US Supreme Court ruled we were unable to pursue our cases. So, we were all kicked out of court. And I just didn’t have the stomach to tell my clients that you have no hope. So, I wrote a bill, and presented it to Congress and it got passed,” Bell said.

Bell said he visited almost every congress members’ office to explain the government’s failure to notify and protect, in order to get the bill passed, which it did with a large majority of votes.

Camp LeJeune Justice Act

Now, thanks to the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2021, anyone living or working on the base for a 30-day period between 1953 and 87 can sue the U.S. Government if they’ve been
diagnosed an illness linked to the contamination.

Back in 2012, the Janey Ensminger Act was to allow service connection benefits. The US Government designated nearly 20 illnesses that are presumed to have been caused by the toxic water on base.

Illnesses related to contamination

Eight of those illnesses are under the Department of Veterans Affairs’ “presumptive service connections” where Veterans can get both health coverage and some compensation:

  • Adult leukemia
  • Aplastic anemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes
  • Bladder cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Parkinson’s disease

This list applies to cost-free healthcare, and reimbursements of that for prior issues, for Veterans and their families:

  • Esophageal cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Renal toxicity
  • Female infertility
  • Scleroderma
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Lung cancer
  • Bladder cancer
  • Leukemia
  • Myelodysplastic syndromes
  • Hepatic steatosis
  • Miscarriage
  • Neurobehavioral effects

For 75-year-old Burns, it was a stomach tumor, removed in 2018.

“Feel used, feel used,” Burns said.

84-year-old Butchart has Parkinson’s disease.

“I’ll reach for something and drop it, and suddenly I’ll just fall down. One of my falls I broke my C2 in my neck.”

Butchart now has 100% service-connected disability, including monthly compensation.

Veterans can get both VA compensation and sue

Edison Platt, with the North Carolina Department of Military Veterans Affairs, urges veterans and their families to seek the benefits they have earned.

He said getting VA compensation for these illnesses does not require as much paperwork and medical records as other situations because the illnesses are presumptive.

Furthermore, he said Veterans can pursue both VA compensation and a lawsuit, independently, but he did add a word of caution.

“If the veterans did get service connected for those presumptive and they decide they want to go apply for the lawsuit and get a larger reward for it, then there will be an offset, but they haven’t determined that yet, whether it will or will not affect their compensation at this point,” Platt said.

That would be more likely to affect veterans who have had the VA benefits/compensation related to that illness for some time, rather than those who applied and got them more recently.

How do you choose the right law firm?

As for those ads, Bell cautions, good marketing doesn’t mean experience in a federal courtroom.

“I wish there was a way I could take some of these lawyers and shake them and say, what are you doing?”

Bell said before you hire a lawyer, ask for a list of cases they’ve tried, along with the verdicts.

Another word of caution, law firms who advertise will often pass along clients to other firms. Be sure you know who is representing you, in addition to their track record and willingness to go to trial.

He also said he is irritated that advertising law firms are not making the distinction between cases that are settled, and those that go to court. Bell said when it comes to legal fees, veterans should negotiate those terms. A settlement should cost you less than a trial.

Bell Legal Group, which is handling “a very large number” of Camp Lejeune cases and is “looking forward to accepting many more,” said “25% is the expected attorneys’ fee for those cases that settle during the administrative claims process. After it leaves the administrative claims process, the work and labor become more intensive while we work the case up for trial. Accordingly, after the administrative claims process, the expected attorneys’ fee is 40%.”

How long do you have?

The Camp Lejeune Justice Act specifies marines, and their families have until August 2024 to file a lawsuit.

Burns and fellow Marines don’t often seek help, but when you sign up for war and are taken down by toxic water, for him, not taking action is not an option.

“My feeling is that an individual who was there at that time and suffering illnesses need to do something about it,” Burns said.

Learn more about Ed Bell, Attorney, Author of Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2021: