A lawyer asked a judge last Thursday to protect New York City and about 150 private contractors from lawsuits filed by thousands of emergency workers who got sick after working in the dust of the World Trade Center.
The lawyer, James E. Tyrrell Jr., warned the court that cities nationwide will be forced to worry about legal liability when responding to future national disasters if he concludes the city and contractors can be sued by rescue and recovery workers.
“Your country is looking to the decisions your honor will make,” Tyrrell told U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein, saying the rulings would have ramifications for those who responded to Hurricane Katrina devastation and other disasters.
With no immunity from liability suits, public officials, municipalities and companies which respond to national disasters will live in “fear of being subjected years later to thousands of lawsuits,” Tyrrell said.
The city and its contractors are trying to avoid damages in lawsuits filed on behalf of 8,000 plaintiffs, including police officers, firefighters, emergency medical workers and individuals who cleaned up lower Manhattan for 10 months after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
David Worby, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said outside court that 57 people who worked on the pile of debris were dead from cancer and other illnesses that were caused or worsened by the conditions at the disaster site.
“The tragedy is this is only the beginning for the people who are sick and dying,” he said.
Worby said that even if laws temporarily protect the city and those it hires to respond to disasters, the immunity from liability cannot extend for weeks or months afterwards.
“At a certain point, the emergency ends and the regular rules have to apply,” he said.
Tyrrell said the case was a set of lawsuits “between two groups of American heroes, those who worked at the trade center site and the city and the private contractors who brought them there.
“It is ironic that we are here today in a situation where heroes on both sides find themselves pitted against each other,” he said.
He said the government had set aside money to compensate injured workers and to provide disability benefits and pensions. The lawsuits, he said, raised the question whether even more should be paid out.
The judge questioned whether the immunity claimed by the city can extend 10 months after the disaster, leaving the city and its contractors not responsible if they fail to maintain a safe work place for rescue and recovery workers.
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