U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein Wednesday approved a proposed $625 million to $712 million settlement of health claims from Ground Zero responders after an emotional seven-hour hearing in which he frequently sympathized with critics of its imperfections.
"I intend to approve the settlement and I now do so as a fair, reasonable and adequate settlement," Hellerstein told a packed courtroom in federal court in Manhattan after hearing from a parade of more than 30 lawyers and claimants. "It is fair in amount, it is fair in procedure."
The judge vetoed a less generous deal between the city, its insurer and plaintiffs' lawyers in March. To take effect, at least 95 percent of the 10,000 police officers, firefighters and other workers who claim they suffered illnesses from post-Sept. 11 rescue and cleanup efforts must sign up by Sept. 30.
While the lawyers who devised the plan were effusive in their praise, claimants had a more mixed reaction - supporting its broad outline, but challenging some of the proposed payments as inadequate and unfair.
Kenneth Specht, 41, a retired city firefighter from Levittown suffering from thyroid cancer, complained to Hellerstein that so-called "solid tumor cancer" cases receive only $18,000 to $22,000 - and would produce only $10,000 if he died. Those sums are dwarfed by six- and seven-figure payments for respiratory and blood cancers.
"I find $10,000 unacceptable, your honor," said Specht, one of hundreds of Long Island plaintiffs. He called the different treatment "a tough situation to swallow."
Candiace Baker, 42, a retired NYPD detective with breast cancer, complained about the same inequity. "Our points should be the same if our disease is the same," she said. "Officers were asked to report [for duty] as one and the same."
Hellerstein said that in an ideal world he agreed that cancer was cancer and death was death, but told both of them that the settlement discounted their cancers because medical evidence linking them to Ground Zero was weaker than other cancers.
"That's the system," he said. "It doesn't work as well for you as somebody else, but there's nothing we can do about it."
Based on new details announced at the hearing, the 50 percent of claimants with the least severe diseases or the weakest links to Ground Zero will get less than 10 percent of the money. The 50 percent with more serious health problems - cancers, deaths and respiratory problems - will get 90 percent.
Matthew Garretson, whose firm will administer the settlement if enough claimants opt in, said he hoped to make initial payments to everyone by Thanksgiving, and finish distributing the money within a year.