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New York top court weighs 9/11 debris-exposure claims

ALBANY — New York’s top court heard arguments Tuesday on the constitutionality of a state law that gave 9/11 cleanup workers who handled asbestos extra time to file lawsuits.

A group of 18 asbestos handlers who became ill after cleaning up toxic dust and debris at the former World Trade Center towers asked the state Court of Appeals for a green light to sue the Battery Park City Authority in federal court.

The authority is fighting to dismiss the workers’ claims, arguing that the 2009 “Jimmy Nolan’s Law,” which gave workers an extra year to file 9/11 injury claims, was essentially an unconstitutional end-run around time constraints for filing such suits.

“No statute of limitations” would have any teeth if the state Legislature can just write laws around it, Daniel Connolly, a lawyer for the authority, said to the seven-judge panel. He contended that Jimmy Nolan’s law was a broader “revival statute” than ever enacted in New York to allow certain types of lawsuits.

One lawyer for the workers countered that their situation met the “serious injustice” standard necessary for opening a new window for lawsuits.

“This group of plaintiffs deserve protection as a whole,” Luke Nikas told the judges.

The law was named for Jimmy Nolan, a Yonkers carpenter who developed respiratory problems and skin allergies following Ground Zero cleanups. It was enacted after a federal court in 2009 dismissed some 600 lawsuits against the authority, saying they were filed too late.

BPCA challenged the law and, in 2014, a federal judge ruled against the workers, calling the new law an “extreme use of legislative power.

The workers appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan. That court said before it could weigh the outcome, New York’s top court had to determine whether a quasi-government authority such as BPCA has legal standing to challenge the constitutionality of a state law.

A “no” answer from the state court would mean the authority loses its ability to challenge the law and the workers’ claims.

The workers in the lawsuit claim their respiratory illnesses are connected to asbestos cleanup work they conducted at properties owned by Battery Park City, and that the authority failed to ensure worker safety.

The authority was created in 1968 to develop lower Manhattan.

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