Judge invites comment on 9/11 health settlement

Ground zero workers have three months to decide whether to accept the $657 million payout

Published March 12, 2010 7:59PM (EST)

A federal judge says he will hold a hearing in a week to let people weigh in on a settlement that would pay up to $657 million to people who got sick after toiling in the ruins of the World Trade Center.

U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein says he wants to make sure the deal is "fair, appropriate and just to all affected."

Thousands of workers who claim to have been sickened by dust and debris will have three months to decide whether to accept the package. If 95 percent don't say yes, the deal is off.

The settlement could resolve 10,000 lawsuits filed by cops, firefighters and construction workers who say they were exposed to toxins at the site.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

NEW YORK (AP) -- Lawyers and city officials expressed confidence Friday that they can get ground zero responders to agree to a settlement that would pay up to $657 million to workers who developed health problems after toiling in the ruins of the World Trade Center.

Thousands of workers who claim to have been sickened by dust and debris will have three months to decide whether to accept the package. If 95 percent don't say yes, the deal is off.

The decision will be a complicated one, but a lead attorney for the firm that negotiated the settlement says most of the feedback from clients so far has been positive.

"By far, the calls are running very positive. The clients are quite relieved that an end is in sight," said Marc Bern, a senior partner with the law firm Worby, Groner, Edelman & Napoli, Bern LLP, which negotiated the deal.

Still, with 10,000 plaintiffs involved in the case, success isn't assured. A representative of one victims' group expressed reservations Friday that deal doesn't contain enough money.

"From what I've seen, I don't think you're going to get 95 percent of the people to opt-in," said John Feal of the Long Island-based FealGood Foundation. He noted that some workers could wind up getting only a few thousand dollars for illnesses that will bother them for life.

"This is far from fair," he said. "I just don't believe this is enough money."

U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein, who must approve the deal, scheduled his first hearing Friday on the deal. The judge has previously said he favored a settlement but planned to analyze it carefully to make sure it was fair.

The settlement, announced Thursday evening, would give workers cash payments ranging from a few thousand dollars to more than $1 million.

Most of those workers will have to decide whether to say yes to the deal before they know for sure how much money they stand to receive, but officials and lawyers involved in crafting the settlement have already begun urging clients to take the deal.

"I think it's a good settlement for everybody," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Friday on his weekly radio show. "This takes care of civilians and uniform service members, it takes care of the private contractors who were brought in. ... So I think it's fair and reasonable given the circumstances. We've been working on this for a long time."

Funding for the settlement will come from the WTC Captive Insurance Co., a special entity established with a $1 billion grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to indemnify the city against potential legal action related to the trade center cleanup.

The settlement would mean a postponement or cancellation of the trials tentatively scheduled to begin in May. Some of the cases scheduled to be heard first included that of a firefighter who died of throat cancer and another who needed a lung transplant, as well as workers with less serious ailments, including a Consolidated Edison utility company employee with limited exposure to the debris pile and no current serious illness.

The deal would make the city and other companies represented by the insurer liable for a minimum of $575 million, with more money available to the sick if certain conditions are met.

Workers who wish to participate in the settlement would need to prove they had been at the World Trade Center site or other facilities that handled debris. They also would have to turn over medical records and provide other information aimed at weeding out fraudulent or dubious claims.

Thousands of police officers, firefighters and construction workers who put in time at the 16-acre site in lower Manhattan had sued the city, claiming it sent them to ground zero without proper protective equipment.

Many now claim to have fallen ill. A majority complained of a respiratory problem similar to asthma, but the suits also sought damages for hundreds of other types of ailments, including cancer.

Lawyers for the city claimed it did its best to get respiratory equipment to everyone who needed it. They also had challenged some of the claims as based on the thinnest of medical evidence, noting that thousands of the people suing suffered from conditions common in the general population or from no illness at all.

It has yet to be seen how effective or potentially confrontational the process of evaluating claims will be.

The Associated Press reviewed dozens of the first cases headed for trial and found several instances where the court had received incorrect or misleading information about the workers illnesses or their time at ground zero.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs have spent years compiling a database based on the workers medical histories that the court used to rank illnesses by severity. The information was expected to play a role in determining the amount of any settlement payments. But lawyers for the city and some workers have complained about its accuracy. Some told the AP they were listed as having cancer, when they did not.

Under the settlement, the task of deciding what each worker will be paid will fall to a neutral third party, to be picked by the two sides.

Carpenter James Nolan, of Yonkers, said he helped recover bodies and build ramps for firehoses at the site and then developed lung and leg problems, for which he takes six medications. He said the city knew the air was dirty so he sued six years ago and now he's happy the case is ending.

"We've had to fight for what we deserve," said Nolan, 45. "I'm glad it's coming to an end."


Associated Press writers Tom McElroy and Sara Kugler contributed to this report.

By Associated Press

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