North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Experts Debate Massive World Trade Center Lawsuit Settlement

March 15, 2010, by Michael A. DeMayo

High profile North Carolina workers’ compensation experts have been vigorously debating last week’s settlement arrangement regarding compensation for 10,000+ plaintiffs who were exposed to toxic contaminants while cleaning up the rubble at the World Trade Center subsequent to the September 11, 2001 attacks.

According to the New York Times, US District Court Judge Alvin Hellerstein met with lawyers for the city and for the plaintiffs last week to go over the terms of the payout. Assuming 95% of the plaintiffs sign on to the agreement, the settlement will go forward. If only 95% agree, the settlement pot will be $575 million. If 100% of claimants agree, the pot will be raised to $657.5 million.

The New York Times quoted NYC Mayor Bloomberg saying that the arrangement was “a fair and reasonable resolution to a complex set of circumstances.” Both city lawyers and lawyers for the plaintiffs seem pleased by the arrangement. Under the terms, a special claims administrator will evaluate plaintiff claims, determine whether specific plaintiffs can participate in the compensation, and allot moneys to be paid out. Some people will likely be awarded only a few thousands of dollars. Others may qualify for over a million dollars.

Many plaintiffs fear that they might develop cancer or another chronic condition that might not manifest for a while due to their exposure, so the settlement stipulates that a special fund of over $23 million will be set aside to pay for their insurance policy costs.

The legal battle over how and whether to compensate victims who got exposed to chemical contaminants, particulate debris, and other hazards at the World Trade Center cleanup site has taken years to resolve. According to the NY Times, the battle cost the city over $200 million in legal fees.

A claims administrator is scheduled to start hearing cases in the middle of May. He or she will look at factors such as the severity of illness/injury suffered, whether the patient had any pre-existing conditions prior to working at Ground Zero, how long it took the patient to develop/report/diagnose his or her illness, and whether the patient has a history of smoking.

Judge Hellerstein also made an unusual decision to have “fairness hearings” about the reasonability of the settlement – fairness hearings are usually only held in class action lawsuits.

North Carolina Workers’ Compensation policy wonks have been blogging about this decision since it came down last week. On the one hand, the settlement does unclog the court system, and it provides a measure of significant recompense to injured victims. It also appears to be relatively balanced, and the extra measures to prevent fraud make a lot of sense, especially in light of the legal brouhaha over the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund.

That being said, the settlement is far from perfect, according to numerous North Carolina workers’ compensation experts. It took way too long to resolve this issue. One initial claimant actually died while waiting for the case to resolve, for instance. And the case consumed fantastic amounts of media oxygen and court time.

What should you do if you or a family member is struggling with a compensation case?

Rather than “going it alone,” connect with a qualified North Carolina workers’ compensation attorney to discuss potential remedies. The logistics regarding even simple worker claims can get extraordinarily complex, and small clerical errors can result in major problems with collecting benefits down the line.

More Web Resources:

Terms of the $657.5 9/11 settlement

Diseases of Ground Zero