One week after the announcement of a settlement of up to $657 million for thousands of injured Ground Zero workers who sued New York City, a Manhattan federal judge is expected to hear complaints Friday that victims who take the deal will lose the possibility of a bigger payday from Congress.
U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein set up the session last week to hear from victims and give his own views on the fairness of the plan, which sets up an administrative process to pay thousands or millions of dollars to police, firefighters and other workers depending on the severity of their injuries.
One of those who has filed a request to speak: Paul Hofmann, a Manhattan lawyer with six cops and construction workers as clients. He said he's concerned clients who "opt in" to the settlement won't know exactly how much they will get in advance and then will be barred from participating in a $5-billion compensation fund Congress is considering.
"How could an attorney ever recommend that?" said Hofmann, who would like Hellerstein to delay everything. ". . . Why don't we put the brakes on and see what Congress is going to do?"
No list of those speaking has been released by Hellerstein, and the law firm forwarding names to the judge - Worby Groner Edelman & Napoli Bern, which took a lead role in negotiating the settlement and has more than 9,000 clients - has refused to disclose how many have asked to speak or what their sentiments are.
But in interviews since the settlement was proposed, many claimants have cited the pending legislation in Congress, the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, as a key variable in their decision-making. At least 95 percent of them must agree to the settlement for it to proceed.
The health bill, which has passed two House committees, would provide $5 billion to fund medical care for Sept. 11 responders, and that would be available whether someone settled or not. Separately, it sets up a $5-billion compensation fund that would be off limits to those who collected money through litigation.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan), who is pushing the bill, says she's optimistic about its prospects, but the lawyers who negotiated the settlement say its prospects are uncertain after years of inaction.
"This is a guaranteed settlement," said Marc Bern. "There is no guarantee that this bill will ever pass."