Advocates and lawmakers on Wednesday praised a recent Justice Department decision to cap attorney fees for the plaintiffs of Camp Lejeune water contamination lawsuits, warning veterans to watch out for predatory firms looking to skirt those limits.
Justice officials announced the new restrictions, which limit legal fees to no more than 20% of administrative settlements and 25% for claims resulting in courtroom victories, on Sept. 20 and began enforcing them in October.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, called the move long overdue.
“For the past year, law firms across the country have unleashed a billion-dollar-plus ad campaign, with many aiming to steal the bulk of the compensation due to Marines by charging contingency fees as high as 60% to 70%,” he said at a press conference on Capitol Hill.
“That’s against the law,” he added. “We need to get the word out.”
As part of the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act — better known as the PACT Act — which became law in August 2022, Congress allowed for lawsuits and compensation for individuals who lived or worked at the North Carolina Marine Corps base between 1953 and 1987.
The Defense Department has estimated that as many as 1 million people may have been sickened by toxic water at the base in that 34-year time frame.
In September, the Navy and Department of Justice announced plans to fast-track some financial settlements for veterans and family members with claims against the government.
But many veterans are still opting to file their own legal claims with private attorneys. Bloomberg News reported Oct. 30 that the compensation claims lodged so far total nearly $3.3 trillion.
Congress did not include caps on attorney fees in the PACT Act, a move that Sullivan sharply criticized when the legislation passed.
The Alaska Republican has pressed Justice officials to use other authorities, including the Federal Tort Claims Act, to ensure more money from the lawsuits goes to veterans and family members instead of their lawyers. Department leaders agreed and introduced the new limits earlier this fall.
“Veterans deserve fair consideration of their cases and deserve protection from predatory law firms looking to make a profit off the pain they have already suffered,” American Legion National Commander Daniel Seehafer said during Wednesday’s press conference. “This was welcome news for thousands of veterans who have been impacted.”
Legion leaders and several other advocacy groups are still pushing for further legislation to codify the caps, but said the Justice Department’s move ensures that veterans will be protected for the near future.
Sullivan said the next step is to make veterans aware of the policy so they can avoid legal firms that try to reap larger windfalls.
“We do not want sick Marines and their families getting scammed,” he said. “If someone charges over these fees, the [Justice Department] will go after them. And that’s a good story.”
Individuals with questions about potential fraud or fee violations can contact the Justice Department’s fraud division through the agency’s website.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.