NEW YORK – Lawyers and city officials expressed confidence Friday that they can get ground zero responders to sign on to a settlement that would pay up to $657 million to workers who developed health problems after toiling in the ruins of the World Trade Center.
Thousands of workers who claim to have been sickened by dust and debris will have three months to decide whether to accept the package. If 95 percent don't say yes, the deal is off.
The decision will be a complicated one, but a lead attorney for the firm that negotiated the settlement said most of the feedback from clients so far has been good.
"By far, the calls are running very positive. The clients are quite relieved that an end is in sight," said Marc Bern, a senior partner with the law firm Worby, Groner, Edelman & Napoli, Bern LLP, which negotiated the deal.
Still, with 10,000 plaintiffs involved in the case, success isn't assured. Only $575 million of the settlement is guaranteed. Some workers will qualify for only the minimum payment of $3,250. Any award they get could be depleted by a third or more once the plaintiffs' lawyers take their cut.
A representative of one victims' group expressed reservations Friday that deal doesn't contain enough cash.
"From what I've seen, I don't think you're going to get 95 percent of the people to opt in," said John Feal of the Long Island-based FealGood Foundation. He noted that some workers could wind up getting only a few thousand dollars for illnesses that will bother them for life.
"This is far from fair," he said. "Look, if you've got cancer and are going through chemo and medical bills, $1 million goes pretty fast."
Other ground zero responders were more optimistic. Martin Fullam, a retired New York City fire lieutenant who was diagnosed with the diseases polymyositis and pulmonary fibrosis after putting in long hours at ground zero, called the settlement "a good thing" and said he would probably sign.
"I trust my lawyers," he said, although he added that he wanted first to see how much money he stood to receive.
Fullam noted that no cash payment would make up for the damage to his body. The 53-year-old needed a lung transplant, takes a battery of medications and was back in the hospital again last week for a heart problem.
"This is something that affects the rest of my life. I'll never work again. It has taken years off my life. The quality of my life is not what it was. I feel there is a certain value in there," he said. "It's not about getting a lot of money and moving to Florida and buying a boat."
U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein, who must approve the settlement, declined to reveal his initial impressions of the deal Friday during his first hearing on the subject.
Hellerstein said he needed more time to make sure the deal is "fair, appropriate and just to all affected." He said he would hold another hearing March 19 to let people weigh in on the deal, in a limited fashion.
"It's not going to be a planning board meeting," he warned.
The settlement was announced Thursday evening after years of court maneuvering and then two years of tough negotiations between lawyers for the plaintiffs and the WTC Captive Insurance Co., an entity set up by Congress to help the city deal with the mountain of legal action related to the trade center cleanup.
Most of the settlement will be funded out of a $1 billion grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The thousands of workers involved in the lawsuit argued that they were sent into the smoking, charred ruins of the trade center with inadequate protection for their lungs.
Many have complained of developing asthma and other respiratory problems in the years since the attacks. Hundreds of others were diagnosed with cancer, complicating the case because little conclusive scientific evidence exists linking that disease to trade center dust.
Payouts under the settlement will be determined on a case-by-case basis, using a complicated formula that factors in the seriousness of each person's illness, as well as their age, previous health history and level of exposure to trade center ash. Payments for the most severely ill could be more than $1 million, but most people stand to receive much less.
Bern said Friday that he couldn't say immediately what the average award may be under the deal.
"There are so many factors that go into making the determination," he said. But he said the firm would work to get each of its clients an estimate quickly — a necessity, given that workers will have only 90 days to make a decision once the settlement is approved by the judge.
"It certainly will be done in a very short period of time, because people have to know," he said.
Associated Press writers Sara Kugler and Larry Neumeister contributed to this report.
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