Thousands Join Ground Zero Settlement

More than 10,000 police officers, construction workers and firefighters have agreed to settle a lawsuit over exposure to toxic dust at ground zero in New York City. They were offered a pool of $625 million to settle health claims related to the cleanup after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and a deadline to accept the deal.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In New York City, workers who got sick from the air at ground zero have accepted a settlement offer. More than 10,000 firemen, policemen and construction workers had sued the city. They claimed that they were not provided the right kind of safety gear when cleaning up the wreckage of the World Trade Center. More than 95 percent of the plaintiffs decided to take the money rather than go to trial.

NPR's Robert Smith reports.

ROBERT SMITH: The legal battle over the air at ground zero has gone on for seven years. The workers argued that the air after September 11th was a toxic brew of dust, asbestos and other carcinogens, and that the city should have known that the conditions there weren't safe.

New York City had a billion dollars in federal money to settle the lawsuits, but the negotiations were tense and frustrating for everyone involved. Now, most of the workers will split at least $625 million.

Christine LaSala is the head of the insurance fund that crafted the settlement.

Ms. CHRISTINE LASALA (President and CEO, WTC Captive): It brings an end to the largest mass tort pending in this country. And it brings a fair compensation and closure to over 10,000 plaintiffs, who have agreed to opt into this settlement.

SMITH: The money will be doled out based on how sick each worker is, and how long they spent at ground zero.

Part of why it took so long for the settlement was a complicated matrix of who gets what. The payouts range from $3,200 for people who just fear that they might get ill. The very sick might get close to $2 million. Also complicating the deal is that there isn't medical consensus on just which illnesses were caused by ground zero, and which ones might have occurred anyway.

Ms. LASALA: It was a frustrating road. But when you are trying to deal with an event of this emotional significance, when you are trying to make sure that you're creating a process that's fair for in excess of 10,000 people, it was probably a necessary path.

SMITH: Another reason the process took so long was that a federal judge threw out the first settlement last spring. He said the city didn't offer enough money, and that too much of the cash was going to lawyers' fees. In the most current settlement, the lawyers agreed to take a quarter - rather than a third - of the settlement.

Still, resentment over the process and the lawyers led a few hundred people to reject the offer. John Walcott is a retired New York City police detective. He has leukemia, and blames his months at ground zero. He just didn't trust the settlement offer.

Mr. JOHN WALCOTT (Retired, New York City Police Department): There was no guarantees. It says in there, the settlement package, no guarantees whatsoever. It could be more; it could be less; it could be zero. But the only guarantee is - if you opted in, was you gave up your rights for the litigation.

SMITH: Walcott resents how much the lawyers are making, and feels they pressured their clients to accept so that they could get their cut. The main argument to take the settlement was that it would take decades to resolve 10,000 lawsuits in the court system. Walcott has already discussed with his family that they'll pursue the lawsuit even if he's not alive for court date.

Mr. WALCOTT: We'll see what happens. I mean, there's a lot of risks, maybe no rewards and you know, hopefully, I get the truth.

SMITH: While this settles most of the claims against the city, there is the prospect of more sick workers out there. The fund is holding back money just in case. Also pending is federal legislation that would provide free health care to the tens of thousands of ground zero workers who have complained about respiratory problems, but chose not to sue the city. That bill passed the House, but not the Senate.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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