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Four judges take on possibly tens of thousands of lawsuits over Camp Lejeune water

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When Congress decided last year to allow people harmed by contaminated water on Camp Lejeune to sue the government, it set the stage for what could become one of the largest mass torts in history. Up to a million people, most of them former Marines and their families, may have been exposed to the water. Now, the handful of federal judges handling the case are trying to avoid getting swamped by lawsuits. Jay Price of member station WUNC reports.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Judge James Dever opened the very first hearing by evoking the length of the Roman Empire - in his estimation, about 1,900 years. He said that's how long it could take him and his three colleagues in the U.S. Eastern district of North Carolina to try the cases individually. That, he proclaimed, is not what's going to happen. Judge Dever directed the government defense attorneys to tell the Navy to start resolving claims administratively before they reach the court. And he told the dozens of plaintiffs' attorneys packing the courtroom they'll need to choose leaders to help the court work on the settlement process.

MIKAL WATTS: It's going to become a rocket docket...

PRICE: That's plaintiffs' attorney Mikal Watts of San Antonio outside the courthouse afterwards. He said it was clear the court will push through speedy settlements.

WATTS: ...Which is what it needs to do because our clients - because the exposure was so long ago - are up there in age, and they can't wait around for lawyers to dicker around for years and years and years and years.

PRICE: Judge Dever's show of control was also a signal that judges planned to steer the case with a firm hand rather than simply preside as it plays out. New York University law professor Arthur R. Miller has studied how courts handle mass cases. He says managerial judging, as it's called, has been on the rise since the 1960s.

ARTHER R MILLER: Where the role of a judge, particularly a federal judge, has slowly transformed from the historic concept of the judge as an umpire to the judge as a manager.

PRICE: He calls this the most significant transformation in judging in his lifetime and says ever-larger cases, like those involving asbestos and opioids, made it essential.

MILLER: Well, you can't adjudicate 100,000 cases. You just can't.

PRICE: It's not practical for the courts, nor for aging plaintiffs like those sickened by Camp Lejeune water, which was first tainted by chemicals 70 years ago. Miller says cases settled in the aggregate can save years, but there are trade-offs. For one...

MILLER: It really undermines the concept of the individual's right to a day in court. These people will never get a jury trial. They will not have a formal day in court.

PRICE: Judge Dever cited a model for the Lejeune cases - the settlement for about 10,000 rescue and cleanup workers who got sick after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. The differences between individual cases were complicated, so that judge ordered creation of a database with detailed information about each claim. It helped reveal most weren't for serious problems and streamlined the settlement process. Aaron Twerski, a Brooklyn Law School professor, was a special master the judge appointed to help run the case.

AARON TWERSKI: Ultimately, I think everything fell aside except the severity of the injuries.

PRICE: The judges in the Lejeune case have ordered creation of a similar database. One name in it will be Michael Partain's. He's become a prominent activist in the case and attended the hearing. Partain lived on the base as a child in the 1960s and later developed male breast cancer which is rare but significantly more common among those exposed to the Lejeune water.

MICHAEL PARTAIN: Walking in here today, 16 years after I got involved in this issue, was a welcome beginning - a beginning of the end.

PRICE: But just a beginning. It took about six years for the 9/11 settlements to be finalized. The Lejeune case may be off to a faster start, but it's potentially much larger. More than 65,000 people have already filed claims with the Navy with many more expected. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Raleigh, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF JENNY LEWIS SONG, "YOU CAN'T OUTRUN 'EM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jay Price
Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.