A North Carolina federal court handed down a ruling this week impacting thousands of Floridians currently attempting to bring a case alleging injuries linked to their exposure to various carcinogens found in the drinking water at Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune. The group of Floridians was compiled by the Marine Corps, and exposures to the cancer-causing agents may reach back as far as 1953.
Unfortunately for the plaintiffs here, North Carolina has a statute of repose that puts a 10-year limit on the ability to bring claims and seek damages stemming from exposure to contaminants. However, plaintiffs assert that the North Carolina statute of repose cannot pre-empt current federal environmental law, and thus, should not be barred by the statute of repose.
Unfortunately with statutes of repose, unlike statutes of limitation, there is a much more difficult burden to bring claims, such as this one, despite the potentiality for devastating and deadly injuries which, from a gut-level assessment, should make one’s blood boil. Just how is it that someone is supposed to bring a claim within a statutorily mandated time period even though they might not experience any detrimental effects for years, even decades, after the statute has voided their ability to bring such a claim?
At this point, there is no way to definitively determine just how many people may have been exposed to this contamination. Some estimates put the number at over one million. That means that possibly more than one million people, including veterans and their families who lived on the base from the 1950’s all the way through 1987, were exposed to chemical agents that cause cancers of the cervix, esophagus, kidney and liver, and Hodgkin’s lymphoma, among others. Not that it solves the problem, but at least those who actually served could have their medical expenses covered by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, but for those who didn’t, almost all civil remedies at their disposal have been voided.
From a legal standpoint, the ruling on the statute of repose is sound, however, this isn’t a victory that the government should be celebrating.