You’ve seen the ads on TV and heard them on the radio. You may have even seen a few on TikTok.
They ask if you or any of your relatives were stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina from 1953 to 1987 and exposed to the cancer-causing, chemically-contaminated water, and tell you, if so, you may be entitled to compensation.
“We know it’s annoying,” Todd Neer, general manager of digital marketing firm the Search Engine Guys somewhat jokingly told E&E News. “My neighbors have told me, please stop.”
Ever since Congress passed the Camp Lejeune Justice Act in August, trial attorneys have flooded the airwaves with advertisements for their services. And now lawmakers on Capitol Hill want to crack down on how much money those attorneys can make from that work.
The Camp Lejeune law dropped the nation’s claim to sovereign immunity, a form of protection from litigation, giving former Camp Lejeune residents the ability to sue the government if they can prove their health issues are related to exposure to chemicals in the water on the base.
Veterans and other residents of the base will have a chance to make their claims in court and, if they are successful, access to some of the $500 million “Cost of War Toxic Exposures Fund” that was part of the Honoring our PACT Act, which includes the Camp Lejeune legislation.
EPA found perchloroethylene (PCE) and trichloroethylene (TCE), the latter of which is a solvent used to clean weapons and machines, in Camp Lejeune’s water supply in 1982 while testing for another chemical. By 1987, the base closed contaminated wells in three of the eight water systems that supply water to the base.
Exposures through drinking water to PCE and TCE, along with the vinyl chloride and benzene later found at the base, are linked to a higher risk of adverse birth outcomes and cancers like leukemias, kidney cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphomas, according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
The Camp Lejeune Justice Act applies to anyone who lived on the base for at least 30 days between August 1953 and the end of 1987, including those who were in utero at the time. It affords those people the opportunity to adjudicate their claims in court if they can prove they were harmed in relation to the base’s water contamination. The bill followed years of former residents fighting to be heard.
It was only in 2012 that veterans who were stationed on base and their families could receive health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs for their contaminated water exposure, when President Barack Obama signed the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012.
From March to Nov. 14, X Ante, a firm that tracks similar advertising, has seen 167,429 ads by utilizing data from the Campaign Media Analysis Group of ad tracking firm Kantar. The firm estimates that it amounts to more than $98 million in advertising spending.
“Camp Lejeune has been far and away the biggest, biggest target of mass tort advertising,” Rustin Silverstein, founder and president of X Ante, told E&E News. “The next closest target if that was like kind of the asbestos, mesothelioma ads, which was about $30 million … and then it just drops from there.”
The Camp Lejeune Justice Act also opened the door for law firms across the country to search for clients — including youth-centric video scrolling platform TikTok.
"The TV media has been saturated with people running around-the-clock advertisements for [Camp Lejeune],” said Jonathan Johnson, who runs an Atlanta-based personal injury law firm. “It is very high cost. … We already had a pretty strong TikTok presence, and we thought we would try it because it's relatively low cost to try that.”
TikTok outreach has been a mixed bag, as only a small percentage of the app's users are over 35. An 18-year-old at Camp Lejeune in 1987 — the tail end of the affected period, would be 53 this year.
But the PACT Act legislation applies to children and even those in utero on the base, so the potentially affected parties stretch as young as millenials in their mid-30s.
“There were a lot of people impacted,” said the Search Engine Guys' Neer. “We're trying to find them. And if we weren't still getting cases from the ridiculous amount of ads you've seen from those same placements, there wouldn't be ads there anymore. So, the cases are still there. There's still people we're reaching.”
Not all aboveboard
As the ads continued to pummel the airways, some lawmakers began to worry that opportunistic lawyers could get between veterans and the financial compensation the law was intended to provide.
A group of Republican senators recently introduced a bill to protect veterans from escalating lawyers' fees. Ten GOP senators introduced the “Protect Camp Lejeune Victims Ensnared by Trial-lawyers’ Scams (VETS) Act” on Nov. 30 that would cap any attorney fees at 2 percent for anyone who entered a contract after the law’s passage in August and 10 percent for any contracts signed before then.
“As those who served at Camp Lejeune pursue their much-deserved compensation, the federal government should not be lining the pockets of trial lawyers,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), one of the bill’s co-signers.
“Without a cap on fees, predatory lawyers have the chance to get rich quick off the plight of our veterans," she said. "Any compensation for these lawyers should reflect their effort and not come in the form of a blank check from the federal government.”
The group, led by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), tried Thursday evening to get the legislation included as an amendment to the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act. They didn't succeed but got a promise to address the matter.
Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), ranking member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, introduced another bill targeting the issue in the House on Dec. 6. That bill, H.R. 9340, would amend the PACT Act to create a maximum amount of fees for trial attorneys and has nine Republican co-sponsors.
The lawmakers worry that without such a bill, trial attorneys will be able to charge exorbitant fees to vets, who have waited years for the opportunity to be compensated for the harm caused by Camp Lejeune's contaminated water.
The signing of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act in August started a two-year clock on claims related to Camp Lejeune’s water contamination. Silverstein of X Ante said he expects that advertising will ebb and flow during that period but expects another jump when that clock begins to run out.
The Department of Veterans Affairs said any amount awarded under the bill must be offset by any disability awards or benefits received in relation to water contamination at Camp Lejeune. The agency said it could affect court payments but not disability awards or health care.
The VA wanted to make it clear that it was not associated with any law firms, both to create distance from any potentially predatory firms and to dispel any claims from lawyers that they are associated with the agency.
“You may have seen advertisements from lawyers, law firms, or others seeking to represent you in litigation related to this new law,” Terrence Hayes, VA press secretary, said in a statement. “These lawyers, firms, and private parties are not connected with VA benefits or services.”