A History of Water Contamination
For over 30 years, service members, their families, and other civilians living and working at Camp Lejeune—the largest Marine Corps base on the East Coast—were potentially exposed to contaminated drinking water. Located near Jacksonville, North Carolina, Camp Lejeune is an important training facility due to its 14 miles of coastline and overall size.
Beginning in 1953 until 1987, Marines and civilians drank, cooked with, and bathed in water that was found to be contaminated with toxic chemicals, which included four specific volatile organic compounds (VOCs). All four VOCs have been linked to serious, and sometimes deadly, illnesses such as various cancers, leukemia, and Parkinson’s disease.
In response to the vast contamination and its long-lasting effects, Congress passed and President Biden signed the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022, which gives veterans and their families additional time to file lawsuits related to Camp Lejeune.
In our Camp Lejeune webinar, civil trial advocate attorney and former Marine John Romano joined as a guest speaker to discuss how to tackle the ongoing water contamination litigation. With 40 years of legal experience, Romano has successfully litigated nearly every type of civil and criminal case. He also lectures across America on trial advocacy and tort and criminal law. Drawing from his vast experience as a litigator, Romano highlighted five best practices for attorneys taking on Camp Lejeune cases.
1. Understand the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022
When preparing for Camp Lejeune litigation, attorneys should be aware that the Camp Lejeune Justice Act is significantly different from the Federal Tort Claims Act and the Military Claims Act. As a result, understanding the 2022 law and its related statutes is crucial. “There are many statues like that where people mix things up,” Romano said. “Using the wrong form can cause complications because a federal judge or the government may state that you cannot use that specific form for the cases you’re pursuing. If you make this mistake, you give the opposition a gift.”
In addition to understanding the statutes and using the correct form(s), Romano also noted that attorneys should avoid putting negligence on their claim forms. If negligence is listed on the claim, attorneys run the risk of having their cases pulled out of the statute and subjected to an entirely different set of laws.
One way to avoid these issues is by reading and rereading the statute until you learn its ins and outs. Don’t rely on the interpretation of others. “Go through it as much as you can,” Romano said. “In doing so, you’ll have knowledge of what the statute encompasses and what it doesn’t, such as presumptive illnesses or diseases.”
2. Learn Everything You Can About Marines
Attorneys need to understand the mentality, motivations, and values of the Marines when considering Camp Lejeune water contamination cases. “Don’t ignore the history [and] the nomenclature of the Marines,” Romano said. “It’s essential to learn the basic history of the Marine Corps so that, when you are speaking with a Marine, you’re aware of words or phrases that may not apply to them.” For example, Marines are not called soldiers because Marines are part of the Navy. “If you call a Marine a soldier, [to] some of them you’re insulting them,” Romano said.
It’s also important to note that Marines tend to be more structured in their life and work as well as more responsive and disciplined. As such, if you tell a Marine that you’ll have an answer by a certain day, it’s imperative that you get back to them on that day. Otherwise, you run the risk that they’ll lose faith in your ability to represent them.
Understanding the Marine rank structure and the base itself is also crucial for attorneys. When speaking with a Marine, their families, or civilians who were working on-site during the years of contamination, refer to maps of Camp Lejeune when necessary so everyone is on the same page. The contamination at Camp Lejeune impacted many groups, including military units from other countries who were stationed at the base. Keeping these groups in mind and how they’ve been affected can also be helpful when pursuing litigation.
3. Be 100% Truthful in Your Outreach to Clients
To avoid misleading clients, attorneys should be completely accurate and honest in their marketing and advertising for Camp Lejeune-related cases. The same mentality should be applied to conversations with potential clients. Be honest with them when you don’t have the answer to their questions. “Make sure you are telling your marketing people and those who assist you in obtaining cases or meeting with clients to be truthful,” said Romano. “There is nothing wrong with telling a potential client ‘I don’t know. I don’t have the answer, but I’ll find out.’”
While you might feel pressure to have the answer right away in order to get the case, there’s no need to omit the truth. Instead, let potential clients know that you’ll find the information they’re looking for and get back to them when you have a clear answer.
4. Prepare Your Camp Lejeune Case in an Efficient and Timely Manner
In preparation for filing your client’s claim, attorneys should not delay in obtaining the applicable medical and service records. Claims can be denied for lack of proper evidence to prove a qualifying medical condition. To ensure that you have every record to file a claim, you can consult Expert Institute’s team of legal-minded physicians to review your client’s medical records. “Getting medical records—the right ones—[and] making sure that we have them [is] key,” Romano said.
Moreover, keeping track of your client’s records can be difficult when there are hundreds or even thousands of pages of documents. Having a case management system in place—such as Expert Institute’s case management and expert insights hub, Expert iQ—is vital to staying organized when filing a claim and/or a lawsuit.
5. Communicate With Other Lawyers
In order to stay up to date on Camp Lejeune litigation, it’s best to speak with other attorneys or sign up for the American Association for Justice (AAJ) listserv for the Camp Lejeune litigation. This group of AAJ plays an important role in what attorneys are doing for Camp Lejeune cases. Plaintiff attorneys are on the same side so sharing information with other attorneys can help to dispel any concerning rumors that may have surfaced from newspapers or bulletins. “A great plaintiff’s lawyer is a great sharer of information, strategies, and tactics,” Romano said.
Communicating with other attorneys can also prevent you from entering into any questionable agreements or stipulations with the government that may have far-reaching effects on your client.
In short, understanding the intricacies of Camp Lejeune cases and the process of filing a claim is important to building a successful lawsuit. Researching the law thoroughly, learning about the Marines, being honest with potential clients, preparing your case promptly and efficiently, and communicating with other plaintiff attorneys are all crucial best practices for Camp Lejeune cases.
To learn more about Camp Lejeune litigation and go beyond presumptive diagnoses, watch our full webinar with John Romano and Expert Institute physicians Dr. Wendy Ketner and Ricky Siddiqui, M.P.H..