Judge Rules Some 9/11 Settlements Excessive

Accuses Lawyers of Dragging Feet and Coasting on the Work of Others

A U.S. District Judge rejected four 9/11 settlements he previously approved, after he reconsidered and thought they were disproportionately large in comparison to those awarded to the families of people killed in the attacks that settled with the Victim's Compensation Fund. Judge Alvin Hellerstein felt the disparity in awards was unfair to families who settled their cases quickly or decided not to sue at all and accepted dispensations from the fund. Hellerstein also criticized the lawyers in the four cases for attempting to earn a windfall amount of money and charging above the standard contingency rate as other 9/11 family attorneys. Fewer than 100 families opted to file lawsuits instead, saying they wanted to know such things as how the terrorists made it through airport checkpoints. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress established a special fund that distributed more than $7 billion to over 5,000 survivors of people who were killed or injured. Fewer than 100 families opted to file lawsuits instead, saying they wanted to know such things as how the terrorists made it through airport checkpoints. At the urging of U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein, the great majority of those cases have been settled. Now the judge says the individuals who went to court generally won larger awards than those who opted to file claims with the Victim Compensation Fund. And in an unusual ruling, Hellerstein recently rejected four settlements he had earlier approved, saying the $5.5 million to $8 million awards on behalf of four "modest wage earners at the Pentagon" were excessive. Hellerstein also harshly criticized the lawyers, saying the 25 percent fee they requested was far above the 15 percent given most other lawyers handling the cases. He accused the lawyers of trying to get a "very large windfall" of more than $7 million of the total $28.5 million agreed to by the airlines. Baltimore lawyer Jonathan Asrael, who represented the families, said in papers filed in federal court Monday that the settlements were fair and should be reinstated. "Vacating settlements which were previously approved for these families has rubbed raw the wounds of September 11. It has caused severe upset, disappointment and for some, anger," he wrote. Hellerstein said he was concerned that the hefty sums would not be fair to the plaintiffs who settled their lawsuits long ago. He also scolded the lawyers for "coasting" on the efforts of the attorneys who handled the previous settlements, essentially accusing them of playing a waiting game in order to get more money for their clients. In response, Asrael said his law firm had done considerably more work than most other lawyers in the cases, including conducting depositions of airport workers who had screened the hijackers of the plane that struck the Pentagon. Asrael said the plaintiffs were not available to comment on the judge's ruling, but in an affidavit unsealed Wednesday, one of the four plaintiffs, a 57-year-old woman whose husband worked for the Army at the Pentagon, supported the law firm's 25 percent fee. She said she pursued the suit in part for "moral reasons of corporate responsibility and a desire that U.S. taxpayers not be required to pay for my family's loss," adding that she has been satisfied by the outcome. Even with her lawyers' 25 percent fee, she wrote, she is still getting about $1.75 million more than she would have had she followed the mediator's recommendation. "My attorneys' fee were agreed at 25 percent, were earned at 25 percent and I request that Your Honor please pay these attorneys' fees at 25 percent of my recovery," she wrote. "Ultimately, I believe that 'a deal is a deal.' I received what I bargained for and our outstanding attorneys should receive what they bargained for as well." In his July 24th ruling, Judge Hellerstein wrote "The wounds of 9/11 will not easily be assuaged. But neither should they be exacerbated by rich rewards of fees and benign indifference to unreasonably large awards."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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