A proposed blueprint for distributing a $190 million settlement to Vietnam veterans affected by Agent Orange would pay only those who were most heavily exposed to the herbicide and exhibit the most severe medical problems -- an estimated 5 percent of the 200,000 who have filed claims.
The families of about 3,000 veterans who have died since the war and about 7,000 veterans with long-term total disabilities would be eligible immediately for a share of a $130 million cash payment fund, according to preliminary estimates in the plan submitted yesterday to U.S. District Court in Brooklyn by a court-appointed "special master."
The number of eligible claimants is projected to reach about 16,700 disabled veterans and the families of about 10,000 deceased before the program expires Dec. 31, 1994, the 250-page report states.
The largest individual cash payments would be about $25,000, the report indicates.
Departing from the traditional approach to such personal injury cases, the plan eliminates the need to prove that a death or disability was caused by exposure to Agent Orange.
An eligible claimant "who dies or becomes totally disabled from an illness (not caused by trauma such as auto accident or gunshot wound) anytime during the period from the Vietnam War to Dec. 31, 1994," and who meets the exposure standard, will be eligible.
The report notes that Judge Jack B. Weinstein, who fashioned the settlement, has concluded that there is a "near impossibility of proving scientifically which adverse health effects are compensable and which are not."
"Since the settlement fund is not large enough to provide a meaningful cash award for all potentially deserving" claimants, the plan also recommends that an additional $60 million be set aside to provide grants to existing organizations to aid children suffering from related birth defects and to provide legal, medical and social services to eligible veterans and their families.
"It's a decent plan," said Jane Dziedzic, of Vietnam Veterans Agent Orange Victims Inc., which filed the original class-action lawsuit. "But we feel some things need to be added." She said the group would like the fund to run for 25 or 30 years.
Dziedzic's brother, who filed the individual suit that led to the class action, died in 1978 of cancer at the age of 28. He had served as a helicopter crew chief in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969, frequently flying through clouds of Agent Orange.
Victor Yannacone, a lawyer for some of the earliest claimants, denounced the plan, saying it "trivializes the sacrifice of these brave young men and women."
The settlement between the veterans and seven chemical companies was reached last May after five years of legal battles and hours before jury selection was to begin. The settlement fund was set at $180 million, with an accrued interest of $20 million so far, with $10 million to be paid out in attorneys' fees. The case is the largest class-action litigation ever filed and the largest toxic-chemical damage case.
The veterans claimed that exposure to about 12.8 million gallons of Agent Orange sprayed in Southeast Asia to clear jungle cover and destroy enemy crops, mostly between 1965 and 1971, has caused rare forms of cancer, nerve damage, liver disorders and skin problems. They also claim that it has resulted in miscarriages and birth defects.
The filing deadline was Jan. 15, but additional claims may be submitted by currently healthy veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange and who become ill, attorneys said.
Devised according to court guidelines with information from consultants, experts and veterans, the plan was prepared by Washington lawyer Kenneth R. Feinberg, the special master.
"The approach is very unusual," Feinberg said. "But the case is unusual, because of the unprecedented number of claimants, plus a lack of scientific base . . . . And it is also a very divisive, emotional issue to the veterans. We wanted an objective approach that would not divide them further."
A court hearing on the plan, and on plans submitted by various attorneys for the claimants, is to be held Tuesday. A final court decision is expected by mid-April. Eligible veterans could begin receiving payments by early 1986, Feinberg said.