Deal Settles Most Lawsuits over WTC Toxic Dust

By David B. Caruso | November 22, 2010

A deal reached by New York City and workers exposed to toxic dust that blanketed ground zero after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks will resolve an overwhelming majority of the lawsuits over the city’s failure to provide protective equipment to the responders.

More than 10,000 construction workers, police officers and firefighters who cleared the World Trade Center site joined a settlement worth at least $625 million, officials said Friday. Among the thousands who claimed soot at the site got into their lungs and made them sick, more than 95 percent eligible for the settlement agreed to take the offer. Only 520 said no or failed to respond.

City officials and lawyers for the workers said they welcomed a resolution to a case that had pitted New York and a long list of demolition companies against the very men and women who helped lower Manhattan recover.

“This settlement is a fair and just resolution of these claims, protecting those who came to the aid of this city when we needed it most,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement.

Paul Napoli, a senior partner with the law firm representing most of the workers, called the settlement “the best result, given the uncertainty of protracted litigation.”

The settlement, which has been on the table since the spring, won approval by the thinnest of margins. Under terms of the deal, it would only become effective if at least 95 percent of eligible plaintiffs signed on. It just cleared that hurdle, with 95.1 percent.

Related deals with other defendants, including the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the trade center site, will likely boost the total to $725 million or more.

A majority of the money will come from a special $1 billion fund set up by Congress and paid for by the American people.

The U.S. Senate is considering legislation, already passed in the House, that would authorize as much as $7.4 billion in medical care and payments to the sick.

Thousands of people believe they have illnesses caused by trade center dust. The lawsuits cited hundreds of different ailments, both serious and mundane, with the most common being a respiratory problem similar to asthma.

Under the deal, the plaintiffs will be spared the tough task of proving that their illnesses are connected to work at ground zero.

Scientists have documented elevated rates of asthma among ground zero workers and a decline in lung capacity among many firefighters, but are undecided about other diseases.

The hurdle of proving a cause loomed especially high for people with common illnesses such as cancer, which doctors have not connected to the dust.

Many of the health claims also were complicated by the routine ravages of aging. Lawyers on both sides had warned that it might be impossible for the many plaintiffs with weight problems or a history of smoking to convincingly argue their case.

Now, even people who are not sick at all but are worried they might become so in the future will qualify for a few thousand dollars. Some very ill people, or the relatives of people who have died, could get more than $1 million.

A group of court-appointed administrators will set the amount each plaintiff is to receive over the next few months. Legal fees will eat about a quarter of the money available to plaintiffs.

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