As part of its ongoing efforts to
protect the health and welfare of veterans and their families,
VVA has become the lead plaintiff in an unprecedented
class-action lawsuit in federal court. The suit seeks redress
for the consequences of unknowing exposure to hazardous agents
during the government's secret weapons-testing programs.
Project SHAD (Shipboard Hazard and
Defense), part of a much larger weapons-testing program called
Project 112, involved the intentional exposure of military
personnel to biological and chemical (and possibly radioactive)
agents to determine the vulnerability of naval vessels to such
attacks. Similar tests also were conducted on land. These
tests, which took place during the 1960s and 1970s, have
resulted in illness and disability for which the government is
only beginning to respond meaningfully.
action is based upon government officials' alleged attempts to
conceal and ignore relevant records. Many of those records are
veterans' personal medical records. These records would allow
veterans to seek health care and compensation for the adverse
health effects of being test subjects.
Specifically, the complaint seeks monetary damages for the
violation of the affected veterans' constitutional rights. It
also seeks court-ordered disclosure of information that will
help them obtain VA benefits and health care for the
consequences of exposure to hazardous agents during their
participation in the SHAD and Project 112 programs. While the
class action is not designed to seek individual VA compensation
benefits, the proceedings should facilitate access to records
that would allow these veterans and their service
representatives to do so.
of veterans eligible to join the lawsuit potentially ranges in
the thousands. The named defendants include former Defense
Secretary Robert S. McNamara, who ordered the testing program in
the early 1960s, as well as current and former employees of the
Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. VVA hopes that by
holding these officials accountable for their actions, the
situation will not repeat itself as our troops currently prepare
for possible biological and chemical exposure on the
SUPREME COURT AND AGENT ORANGE
surprising announcement, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to
consider an appeal by veterans who had developed disorders as
the result of their exposure to Agent Orange (dioxin) during
their military service in Vietnam. In November 2001, the U.S.
Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit handed down a decision
in the consolidated cases of two Vietnam veterans who are suing
the manufacturers of Agent Orange in a civil action. See
Stephenson, et al, v. Dow Chemical Co., et al., Nos.
00-7455(L) and 00-9120 (CON), (2nd Cir. Nov. 20, 2001).
veterans allege that they suffered injuries as the result of
being exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Similar
recent suits have been denied on the basis of the 1984 legal
settlement of a class-action lawsuit against the same
manufacturers. The original class action ended in a settlement
and final judgment that established a $180 million fund to
compensate class members who had been injured through exposure
to Agent Orange during service, and to certain persons whose
injuries had not manifested as of the time of the settlement.
By the end of 1994, all of the settlement funds had been
settlement agreement prohibited the chemical manufacturers from
being sued for products liability by any Vietnam veteran whose
disability was not discovered prior to 1994. Since their
injuries did not manifest until after the settlement money had
been depleted in 1994, the two veterans in question filed their
lawsuits in the late 1990s. In an April 2000 decision, a U.S.
district court judge dismissed both lawsuits, finding that the
veterans were legally precluded from suing the manufacturers at
that late date.
November 2000 decision, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals
overturned the district court judge's dismissal. In doing so,
the Court determined that because the veterans' injuries had
manifested after the settlement funds were exhausted, and
because persons in that situation were not adequately
represented in the earlier class action, they are not bound by
the 1984 settlement. Consequently, the Court held that the
current Agent Orange-related products liability lawsuits are not
barred by that settlement. While the Court expressed no opinion
as to the ultimate merits of the plaintiffs' claims, its
decision would at least allow them their day in court.
allowing lawsuits by affected veterans who did not become ill
until after the settlement funds were exhausted would abolish
the finality of products liability settlements, the chemical
companies filed a petition for a writ of certiroari (a request
for the Court to consider their appeal) with the U.S. Supreme
Court. The crux of their argument is that if plaintiffs are
allowed to sue after a previous settlement, then companies would
have no incentive to agree to settle class-action cases, since
they could still be dragged into court. The Products Liability
Advisory Council, a consortium of approximately 100 companies,
has been allowed to file an amicus (friend of the court) brief.
Oral argument is expected early in 2003.
VVA SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE AND
period of 120 days, the Veterans Benefits Program (VBP)
conducted four service representative and service coordinator
training courses. In June, basic service representative
training was held in Nashville, Tenn. During the August VVA
Leadership Conference in Tucson, the VBP held both advanced
service representative training and service coordinator
training. Another advanced service representative training was
held in early November at the VVA national office. A total of 85
individuals attended these training classes. Earlier this year,
the VBP trained 21 service coordinators in Des Moines.