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Vets to receive supplemental disability benefits for water contamination

Last week, the Veterans’ Administration announced that over $2 billion will be used to provide disability benefits for veterans who were exposed to tainted water during their time at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina. The decision was made after it was determined that there was enough scientific and medical evidence to acknowledge a connection between contamination in the water and eight different medical conditions suffered by the veterans and family members.

The disability benefits will be made available, as a supplement to VA provided health care, to vets who were stationed at the base for at least 30 days in total between 1953 and 1987 and who meet diagnostic criteria. 

The case is interesting not only because of the human interest—we can all sympathize with a situation where innocent people were harmed by the government negligence—but also because of the relative lack of remedies available to those who have been harmed by water contamination attributable to government negligence.

In this case, the money is being thrown into disability benefits through the Veterans Administration. Generally speaking, though, sovereign immunity prevents those harmed by the federal government from suing federal employees and federal contractors for personal injury or wrongful death damages. Under the Federal Tort Claims Act, though, it is possible to sue the federal government under limited circumstances for compensation.

In addition to The Federal Tort Claims Act, which waives sovereign immunity in some circumstances, some states also have statutes which limit government immunity for tort liability. It isn’t known if any of the Camp Jejeune veterans and their families pursued claims under such statutes. Understanding when these protections do and do not apply, and navigating the legal process for pursuing claims, is not necessarily an easy matter and it is important to work with an experienced advocate in pursuing such cases. 

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