Three months after denouncing the first settlement plan for Ground Zero responders as too cheap, a federal judge in Manhattan gave a thumbs-up Thursday to a new plan adding $125 million to the pot to settle more than 10,000 health claims from police officers, firefighters and others who say they developed respiratory problems and cancers in the wake of Sept. 11.
"This is a very good deal, and I am very excited about this deal," said an elated U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein, lauding the 104-page plan as far superior to the one he spurned in March. "It's time to end this lawsuit and mend this tear in the fabric of our nation."
In the new deal, New York City and its $1 billion federally funded insurer, the World Trade Center Captive Insurance Co., promise to add up to $55 million to the settlement. That brings the total to between $625 million and $712 million, with most of the new money going to raise compensation for the most severe injuries, certain cancers and severe respiratory injury, and to death cases. The old deal was worth between $575 million and $657 million.
In addition, resolving a major bone of contention with Hellerstein, lawyers for the victims agreed to reduce their compensation from 33 percent to 25 percent, leaving their clients with an additional $50 million. And New York City agreed to waive any claims to recover workers' compensation benefits from victims who settle, adding another $20 million to the bottom line and allowing benefits to continue post-settlement.
Like the original plan, the deal needs agreement from 95 percent of claimants - who include hundreds of Long Islanders - to go forward. Hellerstein plans to hear opinions about the new plan at a hearing on June 23. Then, if he approves it, victims will have until Sept. 30 to decide whether to opt in. If enough agree, the judge pledged that checks will start going out within weeks.
As with the original plan, awards will vary based on the severity of injuries, the strength of causal links to Ground Zero and other factors. Exposed claimants who merely have a fear of developing illness get $3,250, and those with mild problems will get $11,000 or less. Those with more severe injuries - about 50 percent of claimants - will get much bigger awards, with certain cancers, lung diseases and death cases topping $1 million.
Insurance will cover everyone for the risk of developing future cancers, and the city said it plans to continue the health treatment and monitoring programs that it provides for all Sept. 11 responders.
Hellerstein, lawyers on both sides of the deal and a new expert he named to sell the deal and oversee its implementation - Kenneth Feinberg, the Washington lawyer who doled out $7 billion to 5,560 victims from Congress' original Sept. 11 Victims Compensation Fund - all urged victims to sign on during a two-hour court hearing that at times resembled a pro-settlement pep rally.
"You've waited long enough!" said Feinberg, claiming that the new deal was in some ways superior to the considerably larger Sept. 11 fund. "This is a real settlement with real money. Waiting is not an option. . . . In the absence of a realistic alternative, every single client should take advantage of this settlement."
But the early returns were not all positive, suggesting that approval may still be in doubt. Some complained about the all-or-nothing pressure of the 95-percent rule, while victims worried that the modest payments for those with mild illnesses won't be nearly enough if their conditions get worse.
"I want to make sure my family is taken care of," said Glen Klein, 51, of Centereach, who suffers from respiratory and gastrointestinal issues after spending more than 700 hours on the pile for the NYPD. "Most of us know that we won't live to the old age we might have if 9/11 didn't happen."
Others complained about legal fees. Despite the reductions, plaintiffs' lawyers still stand to collect fees that could approach $175 million, and defense costs during seven years of litigation have topped $200 million.
"Come on now, it's ridiculous," said Keith Delmar, 35, of Farmingville, a retired firefighter suffering several ailments since working at Ground Zero. "It's not fair; it's not enough money. I'm not gonna sit here and say it's a good deal because my lawyers - who are in it for the bucks - say it's OK. They don't care about us."
Legislation pending in Congress, known as the Zadroga bill, could provide bigger benefits if it ever passes, but, as currently drafted, might be off-limits to those who accept a settlement.
Backers of the bill, including Long Island Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), said it still is needed to supplement the improved settlement. But victims' lawyers expressed skepticism that a fund would ever pass and urged Congress to eliminate the "either-or" provision.
"Don't make these first responders gamble with a choice that is not a choice," said lawyer Nicholas Papain.