Editor’s note: Rep. Mark Takano (D) represents California in the House. The information was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.
Two Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill on Tuesday that would cap attorney fees for claims made by victims of water contamination at a North Carolina military base in an attempt to weed out “bad actors.”
Reps. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.) and Mark Takano (Calif.) have proposed the Protect Access to Justice for Veterans Act, which would set a limit on lawyer fees associated with settlements and claims related to toxic exposures at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.
The legislation would also explicitly require an attorney to disburse the funds of any judgment or award to the victim before collecting any compensation for services rendered, according to the congressmen.
“Unfortunately, there are bad actors who may seek to take advantage of the people harmed at Camp Lejeune for financial gain, many of whom may be elderly,” Nadler, who serves as ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.
Nadler and Takano’s bill would serve as an amendment to the Honoring Our PACT Act, an expansive measure signed into law in August that sought to improve health care access for veterans exposed to toxins during their service.
Within it was the Camp Lejeune Justice Act — a measure permitting lawsuits for those who endured toxic exposures on base for at least 30 days between Aug. 1, 1953 and Dec. 31, 1987.
The Marine Corps first discovered volatile organic compounds in the drinking water generated by Camp Lejeune treatment plants in 1982, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
The agency has since determined that exposure to contaminants such as trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene and vinyl chloride likely raised the risk of developing certain illnesses.
While Nadler recognized the Camp Lejeune Justice Act as “an important step towards providing long denied justice” to military families, he said that the newly proposed legislation would “protect vulnerable veterans from financial exploitation.”
“Recent passage of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act resulted in the American public being inundated with ads about Camp Lejeune water contamination,” Takano, who serves as ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, added in a statement.
This onslaught of advertising campaigns have “raised concern that veterans could be taken advantage of as a result,” according to Takano.
Nadler and Takano’s bill would bar attorneys from amassing fees that exceed either 20 percent of a settlement reached within 180 days of presenting a claim — or 33.3 percent of a claim resolved by judgment, compromise or settlement.
The lawyers would be required to deposit all awarded funds into an account held in trust for the plaintiff and then “promptly deliver” the funds that the individual is entitled to receive, according to the bill.
No money would go to the attorneys to compensate for services rendered “until the relevant funds from such account have been disbursed” to the plaintiff, the legislation stipulates.
Takano acknowledged that while some individuals are “targeting veterans and charging exorbitant fees,” there are also many organizations working to help affected individuals seek relief in a supportive manner.
“This legislation strikes a balance that allows veterans to utilize outside help to seek justice, while preventing nefarious actors from unjustly diverting resources away from our veterans,” he added.
—Updated at 3:15 p.m.