SALISBURY, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) – Four federal judges recently appointed a Salisbury attorney to serve as co-lead on what could be the largest tort in American history.

Mona Lisa Wallace will be representing tens of thousands of veterans filing claims against the Department of the Navy and the Department of Justice for contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. Veterans and their families consumed this water for nearly 35 years. The water was determined to have high levels of cancer-causing toxins, such as benzene, TCE, PCE, and vinyl chloride.

“Our firm alone has more than, I would say, 10,000 cases,” said Wallace, a partner and Wallace & Graham, P.A.

Though a high honor, representing the plaintiffs won’t be easy. In order to receive compensation for her clients, she’ll need to not only prove that they were exposed to contaminated water at the base between 1953 and 1987 but she’ll need to prove that the exposure likely caused their diseases.

“With the excitement and the honor and the privilege of being named to that position, I recognize what a great responsibility it is,” said Wallace.

Among the plaintiffs is Jerry Ensminger. He didn’t learn about Camp Lejeune’s water contamination until he saw a local news broadcast in 1997, three years after he had retired from the Marine Corps.

“They wanted to study these children for birth defects and childhood cancers, particularly leukemia. I dropped my plate of spaghetti on the living room floor,” he said.

Over 14 years before he saw that news broadcast, Ensminger’s daughter Janey passed away from childhood leukemia. She was nine years old.

Janey was conceived and carried while Jerry was stationed at Camp Lejeune.

“Without exception, all the parents that I’ve met during Janey’s illness that had children in the same boat, the first question that came to their mind was, ‘Why?’” said Ensminger.

Seeing that news report and learning about the troubling levels of toxins in the water at the base answered that question for Ensminger. Since then, he’s spent every day fighting for justice.

And he’s not the only one.

“We didn’t hear anything about Camp Lejeune. [We] knew nothing. That all changed when I turned 39, and out of the blue, I was diagnosed with male breast cancer, which is extremely rare for young men, especially young men who didn’t drink or smoke and do not carry the BRCA 1 or 2 breast cancer mutation genes, which I don’t have,” said Michael Partain.

Partain was also conceived and carried at Camp Lejeune. He only lived there for the first few months of his life.

He says he didn’t learn about his toxic water exposure until his father turned on the TV one day and saw Ensminger testifying before Congress.

“That was 16 years ago, and the crazy thing about it is, when I had that conversation with Jerry, he had already been fighting this for ten full years before I even got involved,” said Partain.

For all those years, lawsuits brought against the Department of the Navy and the Department of Justice were dismissed. But in August of 2022, President Biden signed the Camp Lejeune Justice Act into law, allowing veterans to bring claims against the federal government for possible compensation.

Veterans who had previously filed claims that were rejected are allowed to re-file new claims and veterans that file can not lose their VA benefits. Veterans who have already died can also qualify for a claim through their estate’s representative.

“A significant number, approximately 30 percent of our clients, have already died,” said Wallace.

Still, Wallace says the Department of the Navy has not offered a single settlement out of the more than 100,000 claims that have been filed. She says that now that counsel has been appointed, things will hopefully start moving more quickly.