Judge Signs Off on Deal for 9/11 Responders

Range of payouts would be extremely wide.

Wednesday, Jun 23, 2010  |  Updated 9:32 PM EDT
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Judge Signs Off on Deal for 9/11 Responders

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New York City firefighters march down a street in lower Manhattan after attending seventh anniversary ceremonies for victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

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Some recounted their days at a smoldering ground zero. Some fought back tears. Some complained that no amount of money would make them whole.

Despite the mixed emotions, most of the 9/11 responders who appeared Wednesday at a daylong "fairness hearing" in federal court in Manhattan said they favored a deal that would end their seven-year legal fight over the toxic fallout produced by the collapse of the World Trade Center.

"Our families have been through so much," said retired New York Police Department Detective Joseph Greco, who suffers from chronic asthma. "This can't go on anymore."

Said volunteer worker William Moore: "We need to get better. More so, we need to get on with our lives."

In the end, U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein signed off on the massive lawsuit settlement, clearing the way for final approval by the plaintiffs themselves.

The deal "is fair," the judge said. "This has been a long and difficult process and I'm very happy it's resolved."

Hellerstein had given his preliminary approval on June 10 to a settlement that would resolve suits filed by nearly 10,000 police officers, firefighters and construction workers suing the city over their exposure to toxic ash.

The settlement would pay $625 million to $712.5 million, depending on how many people take the deal.

At the hearing Wednesday, the lawyers who reached the settlement after lengthy negotiations urged the plaintiffs to accept it.

"There is no question in my mind that this settlement is substantial, fairly administered and good for all plaintiffs," plaintiffs attorney Paul Napoli said.

Kenneth Feinberg, who oversaw payouts to victims of the Sept. 11 attacks and was appointed to review appeals under the terms of the settlement, gave his backing as well.

"To me it is a simple choice," said Feinberg, speaking on a closed-circuit feed from Washington. "You have waited long enough."

Anyone who opts out in hopes that Congress will pass compensation legislation, he added, would be "making a mistake."

While most plaintiffs said they supported the plan, some questioned a claims formula that favors those with lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. Retired New York firefighter Kenneth Specht said colleagues who died from other cancers deserved more compensation.

"I've watched some good men die at an early age," Specht said.

Other speakers rose to describe their suffering from various afflictions and to express frustration over resorting to litigation.

"I didn't go to ground zero to have to sue," said ironworker Richard Prager, choking up. "I went there because this is my home."

Hellerstein responded that the deal was "far from perfect, but it's the best we could do. ... It's not that there's an infinite amount of money."

About half the people covered by the settlement are suffering from minor health ailments or aren't ill at all but have joined the lawsuit because they worry about getting sick in the future. They would qualify for payments of $3,250 to $11,000.

The bulk of the award — an estimated 94 percent — would go to people with the most severe illnesses, including lung cancer and emphysema. Some could get as much as $1.8 million. About 25 percent of the total pot will go to cover legal fees.

The exact amount each person receives will be based on the severity of their illness, time spent at ground zero, age, previous health history and other factors, including the likelihood a person's sickness could be linked to the dust.

A person with asthma, for example, could get anywhere from $12,000 to $781,000, depending on the circumstances.

Lawyers on both sides of the deal already have been trying to build support among the plaintiffs.

Under the settlement terms, 95 percent of all eligible plaintiffs must accept the money offer by September for it to take effect. That means that if as few as 600 people say no, the deal dies.

Fairness hearings are commonly required in large class-action lawsuits to ensure that a settlement doesn't shortchange anyone or give great benefits to a few plaintiffs at the expense of others.

Wednesday's hearing was unusual because the litigation was not classified as class-action, meaning there was no legal necessity for the hearing to take place. In fact, lawyers for the city and its contractors filed an objection to the proceeding, saying Hellerstein was exceeding his authority by getting involved.

In another unusual move, the judge this month appointed a legal ethics expert, Hofstra University law professor Roy Simon, to monitor communications between the 10,000 plaintiffs covered by the settlement and their lawyers.

The step was taken to ensure that lawyers participating in the case don't bend any ethical rules as they try to sell the case to their clients. The monitoring would, ostensibly, reduce the possibility that some clients could be bullied or frightened into accepting the deal, or misled about how much money they might stand to receive.

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