Five active-duty military personnel, including an Army colonel, filed a lawsuit Thursday against the federal government over their exposure to jet fuel in the drinking water of their on-base homes in Hawaii in 2021.
The group is suing for damages over illnesses they say they endured after drinking and bathing in the water, which was contaminated during a spill from the Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Honolulu that sent thousands of gallons of fuel into the water supply at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and nearby military facilities.
The lawsuit marks the second against the government over the incident and the first filed exclusively by active-duty service members, who generally are barred from suing the government for injuries or illnesses caused by their military service.
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In the new suit, filed late Thursday in the U.S. District Court of Hawaii, the plaintiffs argue that the prohibition against them suing the federal government, known as the Feres doctrine, shouldn’t apply because those responsible for the fuel spills at Red Hill in May and November 2021 were not uniformed personnel, and the plaintiffs were not on duty when they were exposed.
The service members were in their homes on Thanksgiving leave at the time of the incident, according to their attorney, Kristina Baehr, with the Austin, Texas, firm Just Well Law.
“The Feres doctrine does not apply to service members who were naked in their showers,” Baehr said during an interview Thursday with Military.com. “They were not in the line of duty when they were eating their Thanksgiving dinners.”
Plaintiffs in the suit — Jessica Whaley, et. al. v. the United States of America — include Whaley, an Army colonel; Army Maj. Amanda Feindt; Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Elizabeth Thompson-Watson; Navy Diver Senior Chief Brian Jessup; and Personnel Specialist 1st Class Dustin Wallace.
The suit follows a requirement under the Federal Tort Claims Act, or FTCA, to file a claim with the U.S. Navy, which they did last spring. The Navy then had six months to respond and did not, leading the group to file the suit.
Feindt’s family is the lead plaintiff of 296 on the first lawsuit filed against the Navy over Red Hill.
Since they were exposed to fuel in their water on Nov. 20, 2021, the Feindts have been plagued with illnesses. Husband Patrick Feindt has experienced migraines and gastrointestinal illnesses, while the children continue to see doctors for their medical issues.
That case — Patrick Feindt Jr., et al., v. The United States of America — is expected to go to trial in April.
In November 2021, as many as 93,000 people were exposed to jet fuel in their residences after a pipe ruptured at the tank farm, sending up to 5,000 gallons of fuel into a nearby drinking water well that supplied water to the joint base and elsewhere.
It was later revealed that the fuel was in the pipe as a result of a massive spill in May.
Following the spill in November, the Navy issued a statement saying there were “no signs or indication” that fuel had entered the groundwater or soil and the drinking water remained safe. Dozens of residents complained of the smell and taste, as well as health issues that included rashes, nausea, headaches, nosebleeds and more.
Baehr said she currently has helped 7,179 troops or family members file initial claims under the FTCA. Of those, 977 are on active duty. If the Navy does not respond to their claims, they are expected to join the lawsuit that was filed Thursday.
— Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on X @patriciakime.
Related: Red Hill Task Force Says It Removed 3.5 Million Gallons of Fuel in First Day of Drainage