The Legal Battles: U.S. Veterans Lawsuit
Around 2.7 million Americans served in the armed forces in Vietnam, between 1960 and 1973. An additional 514,000 served in the Blue Water Navy, while close to 300,000 served elsewhere in Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand.
“Agent Orange: Vietnam's Deadly Fog"
In 1977, Maude DeVictor, a case worker at the VA office in Chicago, met the widow of a veteran who died from lung cancer believed to be Agent Orange-related. This triggered DeVictor to conduct a series of interviews privately with other sick veterans, as she also researched the correlation between veteran health problems and their alleged exposure to herbicides. DeVictor then took her files to Bill Kurtis, an investigative reporter at the CBS affiliate in Chicago, who went on to interview researchers and more veterans, and aired “Agent Orange: Vietnam’s Deadly Fog,” in March of 1978.
The VA, now implicated, plunged into damage-control mode. From this public crisis came the creation of the VA’s Agent Orange Policy Group, which was headed by a former Monsanto researcher. The group’s consensus was that Dioxin was indeed a health hazard. But exposure to Dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange, the VA maintained, did not pose any long-term or irreversible impact to human health. Veteran health complaints were at last being acknowledged, but not affirmed as Agent Orange-related, just presumptive.
The first Agent Orange-related lawsuit was filed by 28-year old Paul Reutershan, who had watched the Kurtis documentary and came to believe that his chloracne and abdominal cancer was related to Agent Orange. Reutershan’s claim was first denied by the VA, and after failing to sue the U.S. government, he filed a personal $10-million injury lawsuit in a New York State Court against three chemical companies: Dow Chemical, Monsanto and Diamond Shamrock Corporation. The case received mass media attention.
In the Norwalk Hospital in Connecticut, Reutershan famously told his mother, Muriel Reutershan, just before he died in December 1978: “I got killed in Vietnam and didn’t know it.” After his death, Paul Reutershan’s family and members of his organization, Agent Orange Victims International (AOVI), continued the fight.
AOVI brought on workman’s compensation attorney Victor Yannacone who filed Reutershan’s complaint as a class action lawsuit against four additional chemical companies—Hercules, Uniroyal, T. H. Agriculture and Nutrition Company, and the Thompson Chemical Company. The case, known as the Agent Orange Product Liability Litigation, grew as lawyers across the country added their clients to the suit.
The Agent Orange Settlement Fund
On May 7, 1984, Judge Jack B. Weinstein, who presided over the case at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City, worked out a $180 million out-of-court settlement—the largest ever in history. All seven companies, having been granted immunity as military contractors, agreed to the settlement, under the condition that no admission of liability had to be made. Paul Reutershan’s sister, Jane M. Dziedzic, called it “a bittersweet victory.”
It wasn’t until March 1989 that the first checks were mailed out to veterans as defined in the class by Judge Weinstein, which included veterans who served in Vietnam from the U.S., as well as Australia and New Zealand.
Those who were rated unequivocally medically ill from Agent Orange exposure were eligible to receive up to $12,800 paid out over 10 years. For those who already died, their families were eligible to receive $3,400. The Fund closed in 1997 after it distributed $197 million in cash payment—an average of $3,800 per case—to about 52,000 American veterans and their families. The Fund also distributed $74 million to social service programs that helped 239,000 veterans.
Since the Agent Orange Product Liability Litigation lawsuit, and the closing of the Settlement Fund, other lawsuits have also been filed against the chemical companies. This includes Dow Chemical Co. v. Stephenson, 539 U. S. 111 (2003), by Daniel Raymond Stephenson who sued Dow in New Jersey courts after developing multiple Myeloma in 1998. Dow successfully argued for filing the case as a federal court case, not a state case. Stephenson v. Dow Chemical Co. was transferred to Judge Weinstein in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of New York.
Judge Weinstein ruled that the previous settlement prohibited additional cases from being litigated against the chemical companies, even if the plaintiff was unaware of his condition at the time of the settlement in 1984.