A federal judge in Georgia dismissed 17 lawsuits in the multidistrict litigation (MDL) filed by military families over the contamination of drinking water at the Camp Lejeune military base in North Carolina. U.S. District Judge Thomas W. Thrash rejected the Plaintiffs’ motion to transfer the cases after the Eleventh Circuit determined that North Carolina’s 10-year statute of repose applied to their personal injury claims and rejected arguments there was an exception for latent illnesses based on a recent North Carolina law. The Court found that the law, which exempted groundwater contamination suits from the statute of repose, could not be applied retroactively.
Plaintiffs then requested the cases be transferred to North Carolina where the Fourth Circuit had interpreted the North Carolina law differently, thus warranting jurisdiction. Judge Thrash refused, concluding that a more favorable venue for the Plaintiffs was not a proper basis for transfer. Noting there was no dispute that the contamination issue was solved in 1987, Judge Thrasher concluded that the earliest claim made in 1999 was untimely and dismissed the lawsuits.
The United States Department of Veterans Affairs has acknowledged Camp Lejeune’s water supply was contaminated with industrial solvents such as perchloroethylene, tricholoroethylene, vinyl choloride and benezene that leaked from storage tanks. Service members and their families who resided at the base have suffered from an increased risk of cancer, adverse birth outcomes, and other health effects.
This decision illustrates the difficulty many face when filing suit for a latent illness, which may take years to manifest. Some states have a discovery rule that tolls the statute of limitations until the Plaintiff suspects the illness is attributable to a Defendant’s wrongful conduct. Others, like North Carolina, may have an exception to the statute of repose which allows certain actions to be brought later than previously required. Thus, one must pay close attention to the applicable laws governing toxic tort cases.