GAI Issues New Report on Camp Lejeune and the Plaintiffs Bar

Show Notes

Washington’s wheels are greased with money, but knowing where to point the grease gun is a job for professionals.

On this episode of The Drill Down, co-host Eric Eggers welcomes Steve Stewart, a vice president of the Government Accountability Institute, to tell the fascinating – if expensive – story about contaminated water at Camp Lejeune and personal injury lawyers.

From the mid-1950s until the mid-1980s, Marines and their families stationed at Camp Lejeune were exposed to carcinogenic chemicals that had leached into the base’s water supply system, causing a variety of cancers and other health problems later in life. But even after the government admitted fault and fixed the problem, potential victims were unable to sue the government because of a Supreme Court legal rule known as the Feres Doctrine, which made it impossible for members of the military to sue the government for injuries.

As GAI’s new report reveals, little was done until 2012 when the Obama administration set aside funds to pay health expenses for victims of the problem, but the industry of personal injury lawyers recognized a potential goldmine.

“As Seen on TV.”

Ten years later, Congress passed, and President Joe Biden signed, the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, which contained another bill called the Camp Lejeune Protection Act. That bill allocated as much as $6 billion to paying victims and their surviving families for health problems that might reasonably be associated with their service at Camp Lejeune, according to the GAI report.

Standing at the signing ceremony near comedian Jon Stewart was a personal injury lawyer from South Carolina named J. Edward Bell III. Ed Bell told reporters he was invited to participate in the signing ceremony for obvious reasons: “We wrote the bill.”

That’s not hyperbole. The bill written by Bell and the lobbyists he hired created a way to bypass the Feres Doctrine, but it went much further. It omitted the standard percentage caps lawyers could charge their clients for a successful suit. Under standard federal law, most mass tort lawsuits against the federal government are limited to between 20% and 25% of the final award. Lawyers can charge whatever they can get to represent plaintiffs in suits stemming from Camp Lejeune exposure.

How much could this cost U.S. taxpayers? The Wall Street Journal reported that the “Navy expects 100,000 cases to be filed within the law’s two-year window and the total cost could be hundreds of billions.” the report says.

To say this created a “wild West” in legal advertising would be an understatement. With such a lucrative backdrop, a huge industry has sprung up for personal injury law firms like Bell’s, and for “lead generators” who are now paid as much as $10,000 for referring a good case to a law firm. That is why TV viewers have been inundated with advertisements aimed at Marines who may have spent time at Camp Lejeune during that time.

The price for a Camp Lejeune lead was originally roughly $1,000—a sum that increased to more than $5,000 after the bill was passed. Once the bill was signed on August 11th, 2022, total advertising spending increased jumped to $31 million that month alone, GAI’s report reveals.

As Stewart, who directed the research for the report, tells Eggers, hedge funds are now lending money to law firms and lead generators to produce the advertising, since they have judged it a good investment. But maybe not for the plaintiffs. “They’re seeing between 5% and as much as 40%” of the settlement awards going to the lawyers, Stewart says.

GAI’s report traces the legislative history of the bill and Bell’s “dream team” of lobbyists, such as Danny Weiss, who served as chief of staff to former House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi. The original bill in the House of Representatives included the standard fee caps, but somewhere along the line, the bill introduced in the Senate, which the House ultimately adopted, somehow neglected to include them.

“The secret sauce in the House was Nancy Pelosi,” Ed Bell had told reporters.

As the show’s hosts make clear, the victims of the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune deserve the compensation that Congress has finally awarded them. The problem is that the lawsuits that will be created by the law are essentially “slam-dunks” for a competent attorney, hardly worth the aggressively large fees the law allows.

Moreover, with the precedent now set that the Supreme Court’s ruling under the Feres Doctrine can be bypassed, what other types of lawsuits will now be filed to obtain the same treatment? Stewart refers to the report which mentions previous, unsuccessful suits for things such as sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and injuries from faulty equipment.

As Eggers says in closing, “If people have found a way to make money off something, we shouldn’t expect to see less of it.”