Ground Zero Workers Reach Deal On Claims
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.
Nearly nine years later, the thick smoke rising from the charred remains of the World Trade Center is still a vivid memory. As it turned out, rescue and clean up workers who spent weeks there were surrounded by toxic chemicals brewing at the site. And thousands of those firefighters, police officers, and construction workers say they developed illnesses as a result of their work at ground zero. They filed suits against the city and private companies involved in the clean up, and now theyve reached a tentative settlement that could bring them more than $650 million.
NPRs Robert Smith has been talking with people involved in the case and he joins us now from New York. Good morning.
ROBERT SMITH: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: And rescue workers who claim they were affected by the smoke and dust filed claims years ago. Some of the workers have since died. Why did this settlement take so long?
SMITH: Well, this was such an incredibly complex case. I mean, you described the scene at ground zero after 9/11, and we all remember that, but what you may not remember is what logistical chaos it was there. I mean, thousands, tens of thousands of people rushed into the scene afterwards and were talking about firefighters, police, electricians, iron workers working for the next six months. Some of those people had training, some of them didnt. Some of them had respirators, some of them didnt. And they worked for all these different, you know, agencies: the federal government, New York City. They worked for at least 90 different contractors on the site.
So, when you started to talk about legal liability, this became a very, very complex case. And then there wasnt just one set of illnesses either. I mean, some of these people started to come down with the World Trade Center cough, immediately. Others didnt get things like respiratory disease and cancer until years later. And all through this process, the city is playing hardball. Theyre saying we dont know how you got these illnesses and you cant definitely link them. Now, the first of these cases were about to come to trial and thats apparently what spurred this final settlement.
MONTAGNE: And Robert, this settlement the final settlement theres a few numbers involved, but it could total up to $657 million.
MONTAGNE: But I gather its not really New York City thats paying, but federal money.
SMITH: Yeah. And this is really the fascinating part, this federal fund that was set-up to pay for this. Right after 9/11, the city realized it had a huge problem, which was it obviously needed to do search and rescue. It needed to clean up the site. But no private insurance company would indemnify the city. The city thought, well, if we get a few big lawsuits, it could bankrupt New York City. But private insurance companies said: we have no precedent for this. We have no way to judge what the liability might be at ground zero. So, the federal government stepped in. Congress and FEMA, the emergency management agency, put aside a billion dollars to defend the city from lawsuits. And the issue has been, over the few years, was this money meant to just defend the city, to pay their legal bills, or to actually settle with the workers?
And so this payout, should it happen will be a really big deal because this will really be the biggest chunk of money thats gone to the actual workers on the clean up, and not just to lawyers.
MONTAGNE: And some of those workers will get more than others, right?
SMITH: Yeah. Theres a whole set of guidelines that theyve developed over the last 22 months, the lawyers have. And its basically every worker will be considered individually, by a third party master, wholl be assigned. And theyll look at a whole set of point values, you know: how severe are their ailments? Is it just the cough? Can they not sleep at night? Or do they have a risk of cancer or even some of these workers have died? And then the most important part is they have to figure out how responsible was the clean up. Did these people smoke? Were they overweight? Had they been exposed to other toxic chemicals? What role did ground zero play in their case? And this will be determined and the payouts will go from anything, you know, a few thousand dollars to upwards of a million dollars.
MONTAGNE: And just briefly, the deal was reached between various sets of lawyers. What kind of say, do the ground zero workers get in the deal?
SMITH: Well, they have 90 days, each individual worker, to look at the details and say yes or no to the settlement. Now, 95 percent have to approve this deal in order for all of them to get the money, and if that doesnt happen, then the lawsuits are all back on.
MONTAGNE: And even more briefly, if 95 percent of ground zero workers do approve, are there still other cases pending? Yes?
SMITH: There is. There is a lawsuit against the Port Authority of New York, and those other money that needs to be set aside for future cancer cases.
MONTAGNE: NPRs Robert Smith, talking to us from New York. Thanks very much.
SMITH: Youre welcome.
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