Hurdles Still Remain for Ground Zero Settlement


By Mireya Navarro
New York Times

Sgt. Dawn Sorrento says she looks on the years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as a blur of doctor’s visits, ambushes by illnesses she had never heard of and growing resentment toward the city that challenged her injury claims.

[RELATED: Ground Zero Workers Reach Deal Over Claims (March 12, 2010)]

Yet on Friday, Sergeant Sorrento, a police officer who is among some 10,000 rescue and cleanup workers at ground zero who sued the city for health damages, felt a grim sort of satisfaction. She had expected her case to be among the first to go to trial this spring; instead, both sides announced a legal settlement of up to $657.5 million Thursday night.

“It’s nice that someone took responsibility, finally,” said Sergeant Sorrento, 43, who helped coordinate the movement of cranes, dignitaries and cadaver-hunting dogs in and out of ground zero in September 2001. “The city finally acknowledges that 9/11 diseases do exist and that people are suffering.”

Officials cast the settlement as righting a historic wrong on Friday and predicted that it would assure speedy and just compensation to the workers, who have waited more than six years for a legal resolution. But significant hurdles remain.

Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein, of the United States District Court in Manhattan, has made clear that he intends to play a role in assuring that individuals are compensated fairly.

At a hearing on Friday, Judge Hellerstein said he would take a week to review the terms of the agreement and convene again next Friday to give his “initial impressions” and to hear from interested parties, including plaintiffs.

He also scheduled a formal “fairness hearing” on the agreement for April 12.

Lawyers from both sides have said that the settlement does not require the judge’s approval. But Judge Hellerstein warned them in January that in the event of a settlement, he would hold hearings to determine whether the settlement treated individual 9/11 workers fairly.

On Friday he also cautioned them that he planned to review the fees going to the plaintiffs’ lawyers and would reserve the right to reduce them as he has done in some other cases, to as low as 15 percent.

This means the lawyers, who stood to collect a third of the settlement under agreements with their clients, could see their anticipated rewards more than halved.

Initial reactions among the thousands of 9/11 workers have so far been mixed, and some will not venture an opinion until they learn more details. A fuller picture of the range of sentiments is likely to surface when plaintiffs turn out to address Judge Hellerstein at the hearing next week.

Still, lawyers for the plaintiffs said they were confident that the 95 percent consent threshold the agreement requires would be met and emphasized that most of the clients they had heard from were expressing relief.

“We’ve had numerous calls and by far the calls are very, very positive,” said Marc Jay Bern of Napoli Bern Ripka, the law firm representing more than 9,400 of the plaintiffs. “The clients are quite relieved that there’s an end in sight.”

But John Feal, an advocate for 9/11 workers through his FealGood Foundation, said he had been inundated with e-mail and phone calls from angry plaintiffs fretting about their potential individual compensation as word of the settlement spread Thursday night.

“A lot of people still want to see all the facts before signing on,” he said.

In a telephone conference with reporters Friday morning, the city’s corporation counsel, Michael A. Cardozo, said city officials were “delighted” that the legal battle that pitted the “heroes” of the recovery effort against the city could soon be over.

“We believe strongly that this settlement is fair not only to the city and its contractors but to the plaintiffs,” he said.

On the same call, Kenneth R. Feinberg, the former special master of the federal compensation fund that paid awards to families of 9/11 victims in a system similar to what the settlement for the workers now calls for, called the settlement “long overdue.”

He noted that the only reason many of the workers had not been compensated under the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund was because they had not fallen ill by the time the fund closed in 2003.

Christine LaSala, chief of the WTC Captive Insurance Company, the city insurer that will pay the settlement out of a federally-financed $1.1 billion fund, said a tort management firm has already been chosen to handle the claims. The administrator responsible for evaluating the cases and deciding the awards will be appointed within a few weeks, she added.

Ms. LaSala said that once the settlement is final, the first claimants will start receiving payouts within months and the entire process could be completed within a year. Each plaintiff must submit proof of medical history and presence at ground zero to guard against fraud.

Under the point system envisioned to determine severity of illness, a serious condition such as pulmonary fibrosis or scarring of the lung could result in an award of more than $1 million, according to Mr. Bern, the plaintiffs’ lawyer.

Avelino Montalvo, 52, who said he worked as a volunteer for the American Red Cross at the World Trade Center site, said he would not accept the settlement in view of its size and the high number of plaintiffs. “A couple thousand dollars for all the years of pain and suffering, it’s just a drop in the bucket,” he said.

Mr. Montalvo said he is on disability now with an upper respiratory illness and takes 17 medications.

Many plaintiffs have said they are not only hobbled by illness but also haunted by the idea that they could become 9/11 casualties themselves.

“I’m sick that I even participated” in the recovery effort at ground zero, said Kenny Specht, 41, a firefighter who received a diagnosis of thyroid cancer in 2008. “It was a dangerous thing to do, but I thought it was the place to be.”

Sergeant Sorrento, who is single and lives on Staten Island, said she counts herself among the lucky ones even as she struggles with “reactive airway disease,” a condition similar to asthma involving a tendency to wheeze and cough from exposure to irritants.

Now a detective in Coney Island, she can still work full time. But when her symptoms worsen in severe heat or the winter cold, she said, her detectives have to pick up the slack.

“What happens 10 years from now?” she said.

Colin Moynihan contributed reporting.

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