WKYT Investigates UPDATE | Advocates, lawmakers consider possible fixes for ‘predatory’ toxic water ads

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) – With a long legal road just beginning for thousands of veterans exposed to toxic water at Camp Lejeune, advocates and lawmakers are looking at ways to protect veterans from what they call “predatory practices” by some attorneys.

There is some disagreement, however, as to what might be the best course of action to correct those lingering problems.

The Honoring our PACT Act, which was signed into law last August, included provisions from the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, allowing veterans who were exposed to toxic water at the North Carolina military base to seek relief in court.

“It’s taken such a load off my shoulders, my wife’s shoulders, and a lot of people here in Kentucky,” Brian Amburgey, a Winchester veteran who had pushed for passage of the law, told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer at the time.

Related coverage via WKYT Investigates:

But amid an ongoing crush of what advocates call “predatory advertising” preying on veteran victims, Congress is now considering some changes.

“Even before its passage, we saw a million different advertisements across every media stream,” said Elizabeth Hartman, commander of the American Legion Post 539. “It was in newspapers, on radio ads, Facebook ads. I still get emails to this day.”

The American Legion has vocally supported a cap on the fees that attorneys in those cases can collect for legal services rendered, although its national legislative director told Military.com that the organization is “open to discussing what that number is.”

Meanwhile multiple bills have been filed in the US House and Senate to cap those attorney fees:

  • An initial proposal – introduced last fall by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) – would have limited attorneys’ fees to 2% for administrative claims filed on or after August 10, 2022 and 10% for those filed before that date.
  • A separate proposal last winter would have prevented attorneys from charging more than 25% of a settlement amount.
  • The Protect Access to Justice for Veterans Act, filed last month by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (DN. Y.) and Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), would cap attorney fees at 20% for settlements reached within 180 days of presenting claims and 33.3% for claims resolved by judgment, compromise or settlement.
  • The latest proposal from Sen. Sullivan, known as the Protect Camp Lejeune VETS Act, is endorsed by the American Legion and co-sponsored by 13 other senators including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). It would cap fees at 12% for administrative settlements and 17% for judgments or settlements in litigated cases.

“For 34 years [these veterans] were exposed to toxic water. They were denied justice. They were denied the ability to get medical attention for these ailments that were directly caused from the water,” Hartman told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer. “And now, decades later, when they’re finally able to sue the United States government attorneys come out of the woodwork to once again prey on our nation’s best. That’s why the American Legion is putting their full weight behind legislation to make sure there’s a cap on these contingency fees.”

Some say they have seen fee structures as high as 40-60% in some of these cases so far, underscoring what they say is a need for action.

The bill introduced in 2021 to allow Camp Lejeune veterans to sue over the toxic water included a fee cap of 20% for claims adjudicated out of court and 25% for claims that went to trial, but that cap was removed along the way, according to a Wall Street Journal editorial pushing for fee caps to be reinstated.

That would have put it in line with the Federal Tort Claims Act, the typical legal means for purchasing an injury claim against the federal government, which caps fees at 20% for an administrative settlement and 25% for a judgment or settlement in a litigated case .

But not all believe that capping legal fees is the best way to address the problem.

“They always want to beat up on us [trial lawyers],” said Ed Bell, founder and senior partner at Bell Legal Group in Georgetown, SC “But we’re the ones out there fighting and making change, and actually, without us, this change would never have occurred.”

Bell, who originally drafted the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, pushed for 15 years for Congress to pass it. He opposes the proposed fee caps, saying it is the wrong way to fix a very real problem.

“We have seen some scurrilous advertising and some outright misleading advertising. I think every one of those ought to be investigated by the Federal Trade Commission. The statutes are already in place,” Bell told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer. “We have lawyers advertising for cases that have never been in a courtroom in their life. To me, yes, I agree [there’s a problem] – but they’re going after the wrong people.”

Resources:

  • The PACT Act and your VA benefits
  • Disability benefits: Camp Lejeune water contamination health issues

Capping fees would leave veterans who would need expensive studies done to prove their cases especially vulnerable to being dropped by their attorneys, Bell said.

And Brian Amburgey, the Winchester man who made it his mission to help his fellow veterans who, like him, served at the base and were exposed to the toxic water, worried that veterans could face an unfair battle in court if they struggle to find a good attorney to take the case.

“It’ll be an attorney like they graduated from Sesame Street School of Law,” Amburgey said. “It would be like me being my grandson’s soccer team going up against the Kansas City Chiefs.”

So far, at least 20,000 administrative claims have been filed under the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, according to multiple reports. Victims exposed to the toxic water have until August 10, 2024 to file a claim.

US government officials have admitted that the water at Camp Lejeune was contaminated with toxins from leaking storage tanks on the base and a dry cleaner off the base. The Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledges those exposed as veterans who served on the base for at least 30 days total between August 1, 1953 and December 31, 1987.

The Marine Corps base is in North Carolina, but thousands of Kentuckians are believed to have gone through there while the water was toxic. More than 4,400 people in Kentucky are registered through the military for notifications on the issue, although that number is not necessarily limited to those exposed.

As many as one million military and civilian staff and their families might have been exposed to the contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune, according to estimates from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

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