Thousands of first responders, firefighters and construction workers sickened by toxic rubble at Ground Zero could share in a settlement of up to $712.5 million announced Thursday, three months after a federal judge said a previous deal did not pay victims enough.
U.S. District Court Judge Alvin Hellerstein gave preliminary approval to the settlement of a 7-year-old lawsuit against the city by nearly 10,000 people who suffered illnesses from exposure to dust and debris at the World Trade Center site after the Sept. 11 attacks. The new settlement cuts lawyers' fees by $50 million.
"It's about time," said Joe Picurro, an ironworker who volunteered to work in the rubble and is now disabled by lung disease. "I've got maybe two years left in me. ... I'm 43 years old, and I've got the lungs of a 95-year-old."
Hellerstein rejected a March settlement that would have paid $575 million to $657 million to victims. The new settlement added $125 million to the amount for victims, which will mostly go to the sickest people.
"It's a good deal," Hellerstein said Thursday and urged injured workers to accept it. "It's not perfect, but it's very, very good."
Lawyers in the case had appealed Hellerstein's rejection of the earlier settlement, arguing he did not have the authority to set terms. Thursday, Hellerstein said his actions were unusual but a case with 10,000 plaintiffs "just begs for judicial supervision."
Kenneth Feinberg — who administered the victim's compensation fund for families of those who died in the attacks — will oversee individual settlements.
For the settlement to go into effect, 95 percent of the plaintiffs must agree to it by Sept. 30.
"We are hopeful that by the end of the year, the great majority of the money will have been paid out," said Marc Bern, a lawyer whose firm represents more than 9,000 of the plaintiffs.
The settlement would pay $3,250 each to workers who aren't sick but fear they could become so. Plaintiffs will get a cancer insurance policy.
Workers who contracted severe lung disease or asthma could receive $800,000 to $1 million; families of those who died from exposure to Ground Zero dust could get $1.5 million.
"No monetary [amount] is going to be adequate. This isn't about the money," said Suzanne Conroy, whose husband, Daniel, a police officer, died in 2006 of lung disease related to the aftermath of the towers' collapse. "This is about my children and my family having an easier life and having some less pain in the future."
The payouts will come from an insurance fund set up in 2004 and financed with $1 billion in federal money to handle 9/11-related health claims against the city and its contractors.
Two law firms for the plaintiffs cut their legal fees from 33 percent of settlement payments to 25 percent.
That change will "substantially put more money in my children's pocket," said Conroy, who welcomed the settlement. "Emotionally I don't think anything will ever change, but it will put some closure that we can move on from it and not have to keep discussing it. Discussions bring up past memories."