WASHINGTON, D.C. -- March 7, 2003 -- The Supreme Court is considering whether to allow Vietnam veterans who filed claims after 1994 to sue chemical companies over Agent Orange exposure (Seattle Post Intelligencer, February 28, 2003). In 1984, a class action settlement created a compensation fund for Agent Orange victims, but prohibited claims made after 1994 against manufacturers of the chemical. The Supreme Court must decide if, despite the settlement, veterans may file post-1994 lawsuits if they did not discover they were ill until after the original claim period.
Once used in Vietnam to defoliate trees and uncover enemy territory, Agent Orange is a herbicide that contains toxic chemicals including dioxin. Two Vietnam veterans developed cancer after 1994. They charged that their condition was due to war-time exposure to Agent Orange, and hoped to file a suit against Dow, Monsanto, and other chemical companies. Although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decided that the veterans suit could go forward, the chemical companies appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The lawyers for Dow and all the chemical companies knew in 1984 that what they were doing was wrong", said William Rossback, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the American Legion (Christian Science Monitor, February 26, 2003). "When they saw an opportunity to preclude all these future cases, they jumped on it."
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court justices began hearings on the Agent Orange case. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that she was concerned that the pre-1995 newspaper advertisements about the Agent Orange settlement did not reach veterans who could have been entitled to money. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor also asked why none of the money was held for later claimants.
At stake in the Supreme Court ruling is the concept that personal injury victims should not be bound by a settlement that does not provide them with any recovery. The veterans say that they were denied their due process constitutional rights by being included as members of the settlement without their knowledge.
At Brayton Purcell, we are concerned about agent orange exposure. Please feel free to contact us if your have been exposed to agent orange or other toxic substances, and need information about your legal rights.