Victory for Viet Vets

By Montague, Peter; Pellerano, Maria B. | The Nation, February 18, 2002 | Go to article overview

Victory for Viet Vets


Montague, Peter, Pellerano, Maria B., The Nation


A recent court decision gives many Vietnam veterans a new opportunity to sue chemical companies like Dow and Monsanto for cancers and other latent diseases they believe were caused by exposure to Agent Orange, a herbicide widely used during that war. Before this decision, courts had consistently held that these veterans lost their right to sue the firms in 1984 when a class action suit settled all claims for damages against the companies.

Between 1977 and 1984 several thousand Vietnam vets sued the manufacturers of Agent Orange, including Dow Chemical and Monsanto. Ultimately these lawsuits were consolidated in the court of Federal Judge Jack Weinstein in the Eastern District of New York. In 1984 Weinstein approved a settlement that set up a compensation fund of $180 million for all Vietnam veterans (and their families) who may have been injured by exposure to Agent Orange. Under the terms of the settlement, the fund would pay compensation to injured veterans for ten years, 1984 to 1994, while barring new lawsuits against the companies.

Earning interest, the compensation fund grew a bit and ultimately paid out $196.5 million to 52,000 Agent Orange veterans who suffered total disability or death--an average compensation of just under $3,800 apiece for those who made claims. These funds ran out in early 1995, leaving nothing for vets whose symptoms emerged after that date. The federal courts had consistently ruled that even Vietnam veterans who showed no evidence of injury in 1984 but manifested disease later had lost their right to sue under the 1984 settlement. Veterans have been fighting to reverse this conclusion for more than a decade, pointing out that many of their number knew nothing of the 1984 settlement, especially those who showed no symptoms at the time.

An important characteristic of cancer is the delay between exposure to the causative agent or agents and the onset of active disease. Commonly, the diagnosis of cancer is delayed anywhere from fifteen to forty years. So some veterans exposed in Vietnam to cancer-causing herbicides could be expected to get cancer as late as 2011 or even later. …

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