A Manhattan federal judge Friday lambasted the proposed $575 million settlement for 10,000 Ground Zero responders who sued New York City, demanding multimillions more to pay health claims, and other drastic changes the city's insurer said might make any deal "impossible."
"In my judgment, the settlement is not enough," said U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein, stunning a packed courtroom full of lawyers and victims - including three Long Island men who had just described their wrenching health struggles since answering the call after Sept. 11.
To huzzahs from some of the responders, including the Long Islanders, Hellerstein said he wanted the city's insurer to pay claimants' legal fees that could top $100 million, called for up to $500 million held back for future claims to be given instead to existing victims, and said he would insist on more money for people who develop cancer.
"These cases are special," said Hellerstein during an extemporaneous, emotional 25-minute address. "The people who responded on Sept. 11 are heroes. They cushioned the blow that was inflicted and they brought us back from that blow."
The judge said he'll demand that victims be given clear offers instead of estimates when they decide whether to settle, and promised to take control of the process of explaining the settlement with personal appearances in "union halls and police precincts" to make sure "fear and ignorance" don't stampede the victims.
In a renegotiated deal, he also said he wants to be in charge of determining how much each person gets, instead of leaving it to lawyers and an independent monitor appointed under the settlement who wouldn't be answerable to anyone. "That's a dictator!" said the judge, who has supervised the cases since 2004. "We don't have dictators!"
The settlement, revealed a week ago after months of arduous negotiations, called for victims to get between $575 million and $657 million as long as at least 95 percent of them agreed. Individual awards from $3,250 up to $2 million were to be based on the severity of injuries, which range from respiratory distress to cancer.
Hellerstein asserts that he has to approve the "fairness" of the settlement for it to become final. Some lawyers involved in the case have questioned that, arguing that because the litigation involves 10,000 cases - not a class action - the parties can settle with or without the judge's OK.
Lawyers from Worby Groner Edelman & Napoli Bern, the plaintiffs' law firm that negotiated the settlement, had no comment on Hellerstein's decision to demand major changes.
The city and the World Trade Center Captive Insurance Co., which got $1 billion from Congress in 2004 to insure the city, both sounded a pessimistic note about a renegotiation. The insurer said it would be "difficult if not impossible" to get a new deal quickly, and chief city lawyer Michael Cardozo said the judge had made it "extremely difficult."
But they did not respond directly to some of the judge's most biting criticism - his order that the insurer pay the victims' legal bills because they had been inflated by an aggressive defensive legal strategy that left "no bridge unburnt and no field unravaged."
Victims, who mostly supported the settlement in their comments to the judge, said they were concerned about more delays in getting money, but pleased Hellerstein had demanded additional funds and had compared the settlement unfavorably to the $7 billion Congress provided in the World Trade Center Victims Compensation Fund that closed in 2003.
"What do they say?" said John Walcott, a retired city police officer from Rockland County suffering from leukemia he believes was contracted working at Ground Zero. "Good things are worth waiting for."