Authors of the historic $657-million settlement proposal for Ground Zero responders predicted Friday that it would get wide support from victims, while the federal judge overseeing the deal gave it an early thumbs-up and hinted he would slice lawyers' fees.
"I think we'll have 99 percent," said Paul Napoli, whose Manhattan law firm headed up negotiations for the 10,000-plus plaintiffs whose claims would be resolved. "When people are faced with the choice of reasonable compensation versus years of litigation, they will opt for taking the money now."
Some victims echoed that optimism but said their decision would have an edge to it after waiting nearly a decade for the city to acknowledge responsibility for the thousands whose bodies broke down after they rushed to the Twin Towers to help.
"This is the first light we've seen in the tunnel," said Kevin Larkin, 56, a retired firefighter from Middletown, N.Y., suffering from asthma and esophageal problems who came to court Friday. "But it's taken a little long. They've put a lot of people through things they didn't deserve."
Others, however, were skeptics about the deal, which provides far less than the $7 billion paid out by the Sept. 11 Victims Compensation Fund. "I just don't believe this is enough money," said John Feal of Nesconset, an advocate for responders whose foot was crushed during demolition work at Ground Zero.
The settlement, first revealed Thursday night, will only take effect if at least 95 percent of claimants agree to go along within 90 days. It calls for payments of between $575 million and $657 million to victims from the World Trade Center Captive Insurance Co., which was given $1 billion in federal funding in 2004 to insure the city and its contractors.
The amount of individual payments would range from a few thousand dollars to millions, depending on the severity of injuries - from respiratory problems to cancers to death - as well as the duration of exposure to the toxic brew left at Ground Zero and the strength of the causal link between an injury and the site.
"This will not be a giveaway," said U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein, telling a packed courtroom that the deal finessed a raft of medical issues, legal defenses and endless trials for thousands of cops, firefighters and other workers. "It will be as fair and just as we can make it."
Many of the retainers signed by claimants call for their lawyers to get one-third of any recovery. But Hellerstein - who must approve both the settlement and attorney fees - said he would consider cutting the lawyers' share to 15 percent.
"There are special circumstances involved with a tragedy like Sept. 11 that do not allow for the normal rules," said the judge. "This will be one area of special attention."
Details of the 3-inch-thick settlement, released Friday morning, indicate that all qualified claimants would get at least $3,250, based on fear of cancer, while cases of death or severe cancers could top $2 million. Napoli said a typical case of breathing impairment might be worth $40,000 to $50,000, while someone who needed an oxygen tank might get $1 million.
In addition to those payments, which the insurance fund hopes to complete in a year, the settlement provides additional funds to pay for permanent disabilities, surgeries and orthopedic injuries and funds an insurance policy that will provide $100,000 to anyone who settles and subsequently develops cancer.
Kenneth Feinberg, the Washington lawyer who managed the original Sept. 11 victims' fund, said it never made sense that thousands of responders were left out of Congress' original plan, and praised the new deal.
"I really do think this closes a final chapter in one of the lingering injustices left by the Sept. 11 fund," Feinberg said. "This settlement goes a long way in correcting that injustice."
How the settlement will work
Q: Who's eligible for compensation under this settlement?
A: More than 10,000 people who worked at Ground Zero, got sick and sued New York City or one of the dozens of subcontractors at the site.
Q: Are there any claims this settlement doesn't cover?
A: Yes. Claims against the Port Authority or others not covered by the World Trade Center Captive Insurance Co.
Q: How long will it be before payments are made?
A: After a 90-day period for plaintiffs to approve the deal, payments should come "very quickly," said Christine LaSala, president and chief executive of the WTC Captive Insurance Co. All payments should be made in less than a year, she said.
Q: How much did this litigation cost?
A: Defendants already have spent $200 million on attorneys. Plaintiffs' lawyers will collect a similar amount.
Q: Where does all this money come from?
A: The WTC Captive Insurance Co. was created with $1 billion by Congress to insure the city and subcontractors.
Q: If I was injured or sickened at Ground Zero, how much will I get?
A: That depends on a number of factors, including the nature of your illness, other health factors (such as whether you smoke) and your age. Awards could range from a few thousand dollars to more than $1 million.
Q: What's an example of someone who could be eligible for a larger award?
A: A young nonsmoker who worked for days at Ground Zero and contracted a severe case of asthma or interstitial lung disease.
Q: Who might get less?
A: Someone who's older and a heavy smoker and has relatively mild cases of cardiac disease, cancer, sleep disorders or upper digestive disease.
Q: How are payments determined?
A: They're determined by how illnesses are classified and a detailed formula that assigns points for various medical conditions and other factors.
Q: What if I get cancer later as a result of working at Ground Zero?
A: Plaintiffs will be covered by a cancer insurance policy with a benefit of up to $100,000 each.
Q: Do I give up any rights if I accept this settlement?
A: You agree not to sue any of the defendants for any current or future injuries from your work at Ground Zero.
Q: Is there anything I have to do get my compensation?
A: Fill out a claim form, which requires details of your exposure and illness.
Q: How can I get a claim form and more information?
A: Contact your attorney.