In August 2022, President Biden signed the Honoring our PACT Act into law, a historic piece of legislation that included the Camp Lejeune Justice Act. The passage of this legislation marks a milestone for federal law.
The Camp Lejeune Justice Act (CJLA) is the culmination of a more than two-decade fight that allows victims of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune’s toxic water exposure to pursue justice for the first time in the court system. From 1953 to 1987, members of our military, their families, and civilian staff were exposed to contaminated water at the military base. Contaminated with toxins up to 280 times higher than permitted levels, Camp Lejeune’s water led to a vast array of health complications, with potentially more than one million people exposed.
Previously, North Carolina’s laws prevented those wrongfully exposed to this toxic water from receiving legal support for their suffering. Despite an extensive list of health problems caused by this exposure – from cancer to Parkinson’s to infertility, miscarriages, stillbirths and more – the late onset of these complications ultimately barred most victims from seeking medical support. Their only option was to pursue justice in the courts, but a North Carolina statute set a limitation that prohibited these victims from pursuing that right.
The specific statute at issue, North Carolina’s Statute of Repose, prevented tort suits against defendants brought more than 10 years after their last culpable act. In the case of Camp Lejeune, this meant victims needed to file litigation no more than 10 years after the United States stopped distributing toxic water, often before they knew about the water contamination or showed symptoms of health complications. North Carolina ultimately established a new statute of limitations, allowing prospective victims to bring their claims to litigation; it did not assist those injured prior to enacting that law.
The CLJA carved a new pathway to overcome the strict North Carolina Statute of Repose, allowing all victims to file for relief. Victims would be denied court access without this law and left without a remedy.
The significance of the CJLA is twofold. First, this is a monumental win for those seeking restitution for disabilities and diseases caused by wrongful exposure at Camp Lejeune and beyond. It is particularly helpful for those suffering latent diseases – or diseases that onset at a later date.
Second, the CLJA will have widespread implications for others exposed to contamination on military bases. We’re only beginning to learn the extent of contamination on U.S. bases and potentially bases located around the world. In many instances, the exposure created a widespread problem lasting decades. By establishing a retroactive cause of action, this legislation potentially paves the way for redress for individuals beyond Camp Lejeune.
Armed with this newly established law, victims now have a fighting chance to seek justice. While nothing can ever right the pain and suffering these folks have endured, solace can be found in the court system. This is our right as citizens. Thankfully, the people of Camp Lejeune finally have that right, which will change the course of action for future victims.
J. Edward Bell III is founder and senior partner of Bell Legal Group, and was instrumental in the passage of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act.