A federal judge on Friday rejected a legal settlement that would have given at least US$575 million to people sickened by ash and dust from the World Trade Center, saying the deal shortchanged 10,000 ground zero workers whom he called heroes.
“In my judgment, this settlement is not enough,” said US District Judge Alvin Hellerstein, who delivered his pronouncement to a stunned gallery at a federal courthouse in Manhattan.
Rising from his chair, the 76-year-old jurist said he feared police officers, firefighters and other laborers who cleared rubble after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks were being pushed into signing a deal few of them understood.
Under the terms of the settlement, workers had been given just 90 days to say yes or no to a deal that would have assigned them payments based on a point system that Hellerstein said was complicated enough to make a Talmudic scholar’s head spin.
“I will not preside over a settlement that is based on fear or ignorance,” he said.
Of the proposed settlement of US$575 million to US$657 million, workers stood to get amounts ranging from a few thousand dollars to more than US$1 million.
Hellerstein said the deal should be richer. Too much of it would be eaten up by legal fees, he said.
A third or more of the money set aside for the workers was expected to go to their lawyers. Some plaintiffs had agreed at the start of the case to give as much as 40 percent of any judgment to cover fees and expenses. That might have meant US$200 million or more going to attorneys.
Hellerstein, who presides over all federal court litigation related to the terror attacks, ripped into the agreement after hearing several ground zero responders speak tearfully of their illnesses and after receiving letters and phone calls from others expressing confusion about the deal. He said he was speaking “from the heart” out of great compassion for the thousands of men and women who spent time at ground zero.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the judge’s actions would kill the settlement entirely.
The deal had taken years to negotiate and was announced on March 11, with about two months to go until the first trials.
A spokeswoman for the law partnership that negotiated the settlement on behalf of the workers said she had no comment on the judge’s remarks.
Christine LaSala, president of the WTC Captive Insurance Co, a special insurance entity created by Congress to represent the city in the lawsuit, said the judge “has now made it more difficult, if not impossible, for the people bringing these claims to obtain compensation and a settlement.”
She said the lawyers would confer with city officials and “try to find a way forward.”
New York City’s chief lawyer, Michael Cardozo, said: “We have great respect for Judge Hellerstein and will consider his comments, but his reaction to the settlement will make it extremely difficult to resolve these cases.”
Hellerstein laid out a number of proposed fixes for what he saw as deficiencies in the settlement and told the two sides to resume negotiations.
He rejected the idea that a third or more of the money should go to the plaintiffs’ lawyers and said the legal fees should be paid by the WTC Captive, not the workers.
Hellerstein said workers should have ample opportunities to ask questions and get answers about the settlement, and he offered to go on a mini-speaking tour to get information to the plaintiffs.