A leading veterans organization urged lawmakers Wednesday to cap fees attorneys can collect from veterans suing the government over water contamination at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, as Republicans and Democrats sparred over how far such caps should go.
In a hearing before the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees, the American Legion identified limits on attorneys fees related to Camp Lejeune Justice Act claims as one of its top goals.
"Our pact with those who have served must extend to ... veterans who are preyed upon by companies that charge high fees for claims -- assistance that the American Legion and others provide free of charge -- or unscrupulous law firms that fleece veterans out of Camp Lejeune Justice Act settlement damages through uncapped legal fees," testified Vincent Troiola, national commander of the American Legion.
The Camp Lejeune law, which was passed last year as part of the sweeping PACT Act, created a pathway for former Marines, sailors and families poisoned by decades of contaminated drinking water at the military base to sue and recover damages.
Under the law, veterans or family members assigned to the installation or who lived there for at least 30 days between Aug. 1, 1953, and Dec. 31, 1987, and were harmed by the water can file administrative claims with the Navy. If the Navy denies the claim or does not reply within six months, the veterans and families can then sue in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
More than 100 lawsuits have reportedly already been filed in the six months since the first wave of claims was filed. The deadline to file a claim is Aug. 10, 2024.
Since the bill was passed, law firms have blanketed TV and radio stations across the country with a seemingly endless barrage of ads urging veterans to hire them to win financial windfalls.
"It is a disgusting thing any time you turn the TV on," Troiola said Wednesday.
The advertising blitz prompted Republicans last year to introduce a bill to limit the fees attorneys can collect to 2% for filing a claim and 10% for contingency fees, which is a portion paid to lawyers who successfully win a suit.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, the lead Senate sponsor of the measure, tried to get the bill quickly passed in December but was blocked by Democrats.
Sullivan and Republicans have reintroduced the bill this year, but this time fees would be capped at 12% for filing and 17% for awards.
Sullivan on Wednesday vowed to go to the Senate floor next week to again try to get the bill quickly passed.
"My colleagues on the other side of the aisle sometimes listen to the trial lawyers too much," Sullivan said. "Not this goddamn time, alright. Not this goddamn time."
Democrats have argued the caps proposed by Republicans are too low for most legitimate lawyers to be willing to take cases and so the bill could have the opposite of its intended effect by leaving only unscrupulous or unqualified lawyers willing to represent the veterans.
On Tuesday, Democratic Reps. Mark Takano of California and Jerry Nadler of New York, the ranking members of the House Veterans Affairs and Judiciary committees, respectively, introduced their own version of a Camp Lejeune attorney fees bill. Their version would set a 20% cap on fees for awards received through administrative claims and a 33.3% cap on fees for winning lawsuits.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., on Wednesday backed fee limits but also stressed the need to balance veterans' ability to hire quality lawyers.
"Do I think we need to have caps? Yes, we do have to have caps, but they have to be caps that allow a veteran to be able to have legal representation if they need it," Tester said after Sullivan called on him to help pass the GOP bill. "That is the rub. There are people that are working in a bipartisan way to get a solution because you're right. It's not what we want happening to the money that we've appropriated, not to go and line the pockets of the lawyers, but to line the pockets of the people who sacrificed for this country."
The Veterans of Foreign Wars, which has a representative scheduled to testify at a similar House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees hearing next week, has previously backed fee caps as "guardrails" to make sure veterans aren't taken advantage of.
American Legion officials on Wednesday suggested they did not have a preference between the Republican and Democratic proposals as long as Congress does something. Lawrence Montreuil, the Legion's legislative director, urged lawmakers to come to a quick compromise because of the pressure veterans are facing both from the law firms and the 2024 deadline to file claims.
"Our desire here is to get this legislation passed," Montreuil said. "We're certainly open to discussing what that number is. Frankly, it's less of a concern what that exact number is. We want to make sure there's a cap and that veterans aren't being taken advantage of."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.