A recent federal court ruling allowing class-action suits against the Department of Veterans Affairs could lead to a host of new legal options for veterans who share similar illnesses, service records or bureaucratic headaches. On 23 AUG an eight-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals ruled that in “appropriate cases,” classaction lawsuits against VA will be allowed. In the ruling, Chief Judge Robert Davis wrote that he hopes the decision will “shape our jurisprudence for years to come and … bring about positive change for our nation’s veterans.” Previous court rulings had questioned long-standing precedent prohibiting such group lawsuits, even as other class-action filings have been brought against other federal entities. Plaintiffs have already eyed class-action suits for veterans who were exposed to toxic chemicals while serving, and for veterans whose benefits cases are stuck in bureaucratic processing. John Rowan, national president of Vietnam Veterans of America, said when he first heard of the court ruling, his first thoughts turned to the ongoing Agent Orange fights between his membership and VA. The department has a long list of rare cancers and other illnesses connected to exposure with the chemical defoliant during the Vietnam War, allowing veterans to receive expedited consideration for benefits. But Rowan said some veterans who served in the region are excluded from that presumptive status — including so-called “blue water” veterans who served in ships off the coast of Vietnam — and others have rare medical problems like brain cancer not covered in existing department policies. A class-action suit by either of those groups might force VA policy changes. Veterans dealing with burn pit exposure illnesses and other toxic chemical exposure from the recent wars could also use the new legal avenues to force VA changes. For more information, contact Sandra at the Veterans Service Office at 602 Strong Ave on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10am to 3pm, or call 365-3612.
Sandra G. Van Zant
Veterans County Service Officer