Settlement Beckons To Sick Sept. 11 Responders

In New York City, the workers who cleaned up Ground Zero and got sick from the toxic air at the site now face a difficult choice. Ten thousand police, firefighters and construction workers filed lawsuits against the city after 9/11. They've now been offered a multi-million dollar settlement — but almost all of them must agree before they can accept it.

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In New York City, the workers who cleaned up Ground Zero and got sick from dust and debris at the site now face a difficult choice. Ten thousand police, firefighters and construction workers filed lawsuits against the city after 9/11. They've now been offered a multi-million dollar settlement if almost all of them agree to forego a trial.

NPR's Robert Smith has more.

ROBERT SMITH: The settlement agreement is a stack of dense legal documents about three inches thick, so it was easy to spot former detective John Walcott as he left the federal courthouse with his future in his hands. Walcott will spend the weekend reading the documents and trying to decide if he should give up the legal battle he's fought since 1994.

Mr. JOHN WALCOTT (Former New York City Detective): Six years ago, I was one of the first plaintiffs and they had nothing. There was lots of sick people and no angle to go and, you know, now at least a partial settlement or, you know, an idea of a settlement is a long way in six years.

SMITH: Walcott spent half a year at Ground Zero and at Fresh Kills landfill searching for human remains. He was later diagnosed with leukemia. The settlement agreement spells out how much money everyone gets based on a complex formula. Walcott could possibly get one of the bigger payouts - close to a million dollars. But he says he's now only thinking about his family.

Mr. WALCOTT: To me it's never been about money. Ill be 46 years old. I'm lucky to be alive. I was granted a week to live and five percent of the people live as long as I have and I'm kind of on borrowed time. So, you know, this is basically, you know, take care of my seven-year-old daughter.

SMITH: Walcott is one of 10,000 workers who will have to weigh whether it's time to move on. New York City and its special insurance fund offered a maximum of $657 million to settle the 10,000 lawsuits. The alternative is a legal nightmare - thousands of complex emotional trials, over 600,000 separate claims, around a hundred different contractors for the city as defendants.

New York's chief lawyer, Michael Cardozo, says there was another reason to settle.

Mr. MICHAEL CARDOZO (Corporation Counsel, City of New York): God forbid, if this ever happens again, we dont want the Good Samaritans of this world to hesitate. So these heroes, assuming they were injured, should be compensated.

SMITH: It was a distinctly different tone from the city's lawyers. For years they fought the claims of the Ground Zero workers, arguing first that the city had immunity during a disaster, then disputing that there was any connection between the smoke and the dust at the World Trade Center site and respiratory disease. That legal fight left a lot of bitterness among the sick workers, and that's going to be a problem. Ninety-five percent of the plaintiffs have to opt into the settlement for it to go into effect.

Mr. AVELINO MONTALVO (Former Red Cross Worker): They're going to have to get 95 percent of us to agree. That's not going to happen. That's not going to happen.

SMITH: Avelino Montalvo stood outside the federal courthouse and heckled the city's lawyer as he tried to speak to reporters. Montalvo worked with the Red Cross after 9/11 and now he says he has serious asthma. For him, it is all about the money.

Mr. MONTALVO: We would prefer this to go to trial. We prefer this to go to - we'll hold off another seven, 10 years if we have to. But we're not going to give in to this. It's not fair to us.

SMITH: Lawyers on both sides of the case predicted that they will get overwhelming approval.

Mark Byrne, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, says it will just take a lot of education about how much money people will get without the pain of a trial.

Mr. MARK BYRNE (Attorney): Nobody has to say yes to anything until they know what they are getting. Clearly, you could not do that. We couldnt say hey, you have an injury, youre going to get a settlement, we'll let you know some day.

SMITH: The clock's ticking. The Ground Zero workers have 90 days to approve or reject the settlement.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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