NEW YORK – Thousands of ground zero workers who claim to have been sickened by dust and debris from the World Trade Center will have 90 days to decide whether to accept a settlement worth up to $657.5 million.
U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein, who must approve the deal, scheduled his first hearing Friday on a settlement that sought to resolve about 10,000 lawsuits by police, firefighters and construction workers over respiratory illnesses linked to trade center ash. The judge has previously said he favored a settlement, but planned to analyze it carefully to make sure it was fair.
The settlement, announced Thursday evening, is contingent on at least 95 percent of the workers agreeing to accept cash payments ranging from a few thousand dollars to more than $1 million.
Most of those workers will have to decide whether to say yes to the deal before they know for sure how much money they stand to receive, but officials and lawyers involved in crafting the settlement have already begun urging clients to take the deal.
"I think it's a good settlement for everybody," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Friday on his weekly radio show. "This takes care of civilians and uniform service members, it takes care of the private contractors who were brought in. ... So I think it's fair and reasonable given the circumstances. We've been working on this for a long time."
Marc Bern, a senior partner with the law firm Worby, Groner, Edelman & Napoli, Bern LLP, which negotiated the deal, said it was "a good settlement." The legal partnership represents about 9,000 of the people potentially covered by the settlement, a factor likely to increase the odds of reaching the 95 percent acceptance threshold.
Funding for the settlement will come from the WTC Captive Insurance Co., a special entity established with a $1 billion grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to indemnify the city against potential legal action related to the trade center cleanup.
The settlement would mean a postponement or cancellation of the trials tentatively scheduled to begin in May. Some of the cases scheduled to be heard first included that of a firefighter who died of throat cancer and another who needed a lung transplant, as well as workers with less serious ailments, including a Consolidated Edison utility company employee with limited exposure to the debris pile and no current serious illness.
The deal would make the city and other companies represented by the insurer liable for a minimum of $575 million, with more money available to the sick if certain conditions are met.
Workers who wish to participate in the settlement would need to prove they had been at the World Trade Center site or other facilities that handled debris. They also would have to turn over medical records and provide other information aimed at weeding out fraudulent or dubious claims.
Thousands of police officers, firefighters and construction workers who put in time at the 16-acre site in lower Manhattan had filed lawsuits against the city, claiming it sent them to ground zero without proper protective equipment.
Many now claim to have fallen ill. A majority complained of a respiratory problem similar to asthma, but the suits also sought damages for hundreds of other types of ailments, including cancer.
Lawyers for the city claimed it did its best to get respiratory equipment to everyone who needed it. They also had challenged some of the claims as based on the thinnest of medical evidence, noting that thousands of the people suing suffered from conditions common in the general population or from no illness at all.
It has yet to be seen how effective or potentially confrontational the process of evaluating claims will be.
The Associated Press reviewed dozens of the first cases headed for trial and found several instances where the court had received incorrect or misleading information about the workers illnesses or their time at ground zero.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs have spent years compiling a database based on the workers medical histories that the court used to rank illnesses by severity. The information was expected to play a role in determining the amount of any settlement payments. But lawyers for the city and some workers have complained about its accuracy. Some told the AP they were listed as having cancer, when they did not.
Under the settlement, the task of deciding what each worker will be paid will fall to a neutral third party, to be picked by the two sides.
Carpenter James Nolan, of Yonkers, said he helped recover bodies and build ramps for firehoses at the site and then developed lung and leg problems, for which he takes six medications. He said the city knew the air was dirty so he sued six years ago and now he's happy the case is ending.
"We've had to fight for what we deserve," said Nolan, 45. "I'm glad it's coming to an end."
Associated Press writers Tom McElroy and Sara Kugler contributed to this report.