Thousands of 9/11 workers can now sue over illnesses

September 29, 2009

Firefighters make their way through
Photo credit: AP File | Firefighters make their way through rubble after terrorists crashed two airliners into the World Trade Center. (Sept. 11, 2001)

Thousands of sickened 9/11 recovery workers whose legal claims have been barred because of missed deadlines can now join a massive group suing New York City under a law signed by Gov. David A. Paterson, officials said.

The law immediately allows more than 3,000 Ground Zero workers to revive lawsuits that were thrown out by a federal judge in July on the technical ground that they were not filed within 90 days of the workers’ conditions being diagnosed.

PHOTOS: Ground Zero immediately after 9/11

PHOTOS: Ground Zero today

It will also allow new lawsuits from an untold number of workers who never even filed claims.

One of them is Chris Klein, 38, a carpenter from Broad Channel, Queens, who worked for three months at Ground Zero in 2002 and is now on disability with a lung condition. Attorneys told him he waited too long after his diagnosis in 2004 and couldn’t file a lawsuit.

“I put my life on the line to help the city and the state, and we were lied to that the air was good to breathe,” said Klein, who said he also has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and chronic sinusitis.

Klein said he will now join a separate group of about 10,000 police, firefighters, construction workers and others who worked at or near Ground Zero in the months after 9/11 and who filed lawsuits seeking compensation for subsequent illnesses. They contend the government had told them, falsely, the air conditions were safe.

One of those laws requires most plaintiffs who are suing municipalities to file a “notice of claim” within 90 days, stating an intention to sue. Ground Zero workers have one year, starting on Sept. 16 when the governor signed the bill into law. It passed the State Senate and Assembly unanimously.

The law change was first reported by the New York Law Journal last week.

Marvin Bethea, president of North Bellmore-based 9/11 worker advocacy group,
Unsung Heroes Helping Heroes, praised the law change but said he was more focused
on reopening the federal Victim Compensation Fund that doled out billions until
2005. Workers would get money more quickly through the fund, he said.

New York City officials had urged Paterson to veto the bill, in part because
they said it would hurt city efforts to reopen the federal fund. Officials also
said the change was unnecessary because workers who are just now becoming sick
can still file claims within 90 days of their diagnosis.

Kate O’Brien Ahlers, a spokeswoman for the city’s legal team, the Corporation
Counsel, estimated Tuesday that the new law would cost the city about $300 million.

Paterson spokesman Morgan Hook said the city’s liability has been capped at
$350 million. New claims, he said, would not make taxpayers responsible for
more restitution.

State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers), who sponsored the bill, said
most Ground Zero workers were not thinking about litigation when they got sick
and should not be left out of a settlement on a technicality.

“I’m not trying to rewrite the rules, I’m just trying to right a wrong,”
she said.

For Klein, the law change is a small bit of good news as he struggles with
his illnesses. Once a big, strapping carpenter, Klein said he now spends most
days lying around his mother’s house.

“I’m glad they changed the law,” he said. “Hopefully, we’re
able to get what we deserve.”

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