The US Constitution’s Preamble begins with the words, “We the people.” This phrase is considered a statement that acts as the Constitution’s guiding principle. It is a constant reminder for government officials that they derive their power not from any king or the Congress but from the people themselves.
It has been rightfully said that the government is a ‘necessary evil.’ Though established to protect its citizens and act in their highest interest, the government may fall short of its duties. It is not uncommon to find instances of Federal government negligence that caused great pain and loss for its people.
One such incident (perhaps among the worst) is the Camp Lejeune water contamination tragedy. In general, the law demands justice be served to the victims of any negligence or intentional crime. But is it the same when the lawgiver is on trial?
In this article, we will discuss whether or not it is possible to sue the US government and how victims of Camp Lejeune were able to do so.
Why the Need for Such Litigation?
The Camp Lejeune Base of North Carolina was set up in 1942 as a military training ground. With over 156,000 acres of land (including a 14-mile-long beach), it promised to act as a Fleet Marine Force (FMF) support center.
Sadly, three of the water supply tanks across the Base were found to be contaminated with Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in 1982. The tanks were closed in 1985, but this contamination had lurked unawares since 1953. At least one million veterans and their families across the Base had consumed the toxic water.
The next decades involved new cases of injuries sustained due to the polluted waters. According to TorHoerman Law, residents suffered from life-threatening conditions like cancer, renal toxicity, Parkinson’s disease, infertility issues, scleroderma, etc.
Such far-reaching repercussions demanded a suitable Camp Lejeune payout per person that extended beyond the free medical aid offered by the Obama administration. Victims of the tragedy were looking for legal justice and fair compensation.
The Federal Government’s Sovereign Immunity
As the highest authority in the country, the Federal government owns the sole right to be the lawgiver. This is where the problem comes in. Given the government’s high station, it enjoys what is known as sovereign immunity.
A concept borrowed from the English court, sovereign immunity simply means that the government cannot be sued without its consent. This means Camp Lejeune victims could file a lawsuit against the government if granted the right by the government itself.
Sovereign immunity may seem unfair as many have argued that it justifies the wrongdoings of government officials. However, it makes sense in light of the government’s position among its citizens. Being the highest authority, the government can only be dragged to court when it so wishes.
Originally, this court-made concept held the idea that the ‘king can never do wrong.’ However, the same is not true for the modern definition. The legal doctrine of sovereign immunity is mentioned under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) of 1946.
The Feres Doctrine
Sovereign immunity is what regular citizens must be concerned about. However, there is another roadblock standing in the way of military personnel – the Feres doctrine. As per the FTCA, this doctrine does not permit military servicemen to sue the government for injuries sustained while on duty.
The Feres doctrine did cause problems in suing the government, as experienced by a military widow. Carol Clendening, the widow of Gary Clendening, filed a lawsuit on his behalf. She alleged that Gary’s adult leukemia was a result of consuming the Camp’s toxic waters for bathing, drinking, and cooking.
Despite adult leukemia being one of the injuries listed by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Carol’s lawsuit was blocked. This only happened because the Supreme Court brought up the Feres doctrine. It is believed that Carol could not sue the government because her late husband’s injury was sustained during active duty.
President Biden’s CLJA
Out of the one million people affected by the Camp Lejeune incident, most were military servicemen. This means they had two major blockades to overcome if they could sue the government.
Both were taken care of by President Joe Biden. In August 2022, he signed the official passing of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act (CLJA). This Act gave military members the exclusive right to sue the Federal government.
The CLJA came as a major win for Camp Lejeune’s victims (albeit decades later). However, victims could not directly file a lawsuit against the government. They had to file an administrative claim with the US Navy Judge Advocate General (JAG). If the Navy failed to make any resolution within six months, they could file a lawsuit.
Where Does the Litigation Stand Now?
The CLJA established a statute of limitations of two years from the date the Bill was passed. This means Camp Lejeune victims have time till August 2024 to file their claims. Over the past year, the fight for justice has been an arduous one.
This is because the Navy has made several excuses along the way to avoid paying fair settlements. Even the elective option or early settlement program proved to be unfair for most claimants (especially those with multiple injuries).
Currently, over 147,000 administrative claims have been made, and 1,400 of them have turned into lawsuits. The government has only made six settlements to date.
Most claims will turn into lawsuits and end up in trial (preparations are underway). The government is arguing that the CLJA does not allow claimants to seek a jury trial (to which the plaintiff’s counsel is making a counter-argument).
In the final analysis, Camp Lejeune victims have come a long way from their initial efforts at seeking justice. The only fear now is the trial timeline. Most victims are too old or sick to survive many years before justice is served.
If they succumb to their injuries or age, surviving family members will continue their fight. Attorneys are trying their best to ensure their clients are compensated fairly and timely.