15 Years after WTC Bombing, Victims Await Compensation
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
In a few minutes, why Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas refuses to ask questions during oral arguments. But first, today is the anniversary of the World Trade Center bombing. The first World Trade Center bombing on February 23rd, 1993. That's when a rented van full of explosives detonated in the parking garage beneath the Twin Towers. Six people were killed, more than 1,000 injured; businesses were interrupted, livelihoods lost.
Today, 15 years later, victims of that bombing are still seeking compensation, not from the terrorists, who are jailed and penniless, but from the World Trade Center's landlord, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. NPR's Mike Pesca reports.
MIKE PESCA: 9/11 changed everything, we hear. It certainly changed the meaning of the phrase terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Today that phrase conjures images of planes crumbling buildings, people outrunning a dust cloud. But in 1993 the World Trade Center was attacked by underground bomb and there were real victims then.
(Soundbite of coughing)
Unidentified Woman: On the 36th floor everything was shaking. I mean it's scary. It was scary.
PESCA: The motives of the terrorists in both World Trade Center attacks were essentially the same. But the experiences of the victims couldn't be more different. After 9/11, the government set up a compensation fund with some survivors or estates, if they agreed to give up lawsuits, getting millions of dollars. After the 1993 attack, lawsuits were the only legal remedy for victims.
And as of today those suits are still being appealed. What's even more unfair about the delay, says Victor Kovner, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, is that the victims lose out on 15 years of interest.
Mr. VICTOR KOVNER (Attorney): Under New York State law, interest runs at nine percent a year, nine percent times 15 is more than 100 percent. And this record of delay on appeals has been shameful.
PESCA: Over the course of six appeals, Kovner has represented the steering committee of victims. Originally there were 400, now the number is closer to 40. Many of the victims took settlements after a six-person jury finally got the case in 2005 and found the Port Authority liable for 68 percent of damages. To the Aort Authority, which would not comment, nor allow their outside counsel to comment, this ruling was, as their appellate lawyer, John Gibbons said, bizarre.
After all, how could the building be more responsible for damages than the terrorists who set off the bomb?
Mr. DAVID DEAN (Attorney): It's not bizarre at all.
PESCA: David Dean was the plaintiff's attorney at trial.
Mr. DEAN: We showed the jury - and the jury was very, very interested in the documentary evidence that proved that the Port Authority was warned by their own experts that this event was going to happen.
PESCA: The gist of Dean's argument was that the Trade Center security was so flawed that the attack was foreseeable. One detail in particular had a big impact on the jury, says Dean.
Mr. DEAN: Scotland Yard was appalled, appalled. That was their word, appalled. And boy, don't you think that we didn't remind the jury of that. Now, I'll tell you a funny story about that in a second. But Scotland Yard was appalled that there was underground public parking in this famous building. That we reminded the jury of that word so often during the trial that when in summation I said, don't you remember that Scotland Yard was - and the jury said appalled. It was one of my best moments in my trial life, never mind in that trial.
PESCA: That moment and the resulting verdict of 68 percent liability is especially important because under the law, anything over 50 percent responsibility puts you on the hook for all the damages; up to two billion dollars, according to plaintiffs' lawyers. As strange as the 68 percent figure or the overall principal may seem at first glance, there is legal theory to back it up, says NYU law professor Steven Gillers.
Professor STEVEN GILLERS (NYU): You know, our first impulse is always to blame the people who produce the violence. In a moral universe, they're the ones who are 100 percent responsible and the Port Authority is zero or maybe 90/10.
PESCA: But from a legal perspective, Giller says that if you ignore the scope of the damage and the historical importance of the event, the bombing is not so different from an apartment building with faulty security being held liable after a mugging, and that happens all the time. Whether the courts agree with the jury is still an open question. The New York State appellate division could issue a ruling any day. After that there may still be a couple more appeals to come.
Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.
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