So Much for that Giant Settlement With Ground Zero Workers

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Last Monday, to great fanfare, the city announced a settlement had been reached with ailing Ground Zero workers after some six years of litigation. The settlement would have provided up to $657.5 million for the medical expenses of people who labored at the World Trade Center site following the attack of Sept. 11, 2001. The settlement would have provided payments ranging from several thousand to nearly $1 million per worker, according to a complicated formula.

There was a catch: 95 percent of the workers would have to approve the deal before it would go forward. Well, as is common in this fractious debate, the initial joy over the settlement quickly turned to grousing about the actual amounts that each plaintiff would receive.

John Feal, a Ground Zero worker who runs a 9/11 nonprofit, called the proposed deal "far from fair," and an "insult." Daily News columnist Michael Daly wrote that government should "tear up the settlement," and revive the shuttered Sept. 11 Victims Compensation Fund, which was used to dole out federal money to the families of the dead.

And then of course the plaintiff's lawyers came under fire for the fees they would earn from the settlement. They stood to get some $200 million out of the pot. Few seemed to remember that it was those lawyers who took a big chance and spent a lot of their own money to litigate the case.

Well, District Court Judge Alvin Hellerstein took all those concerns, following an emotional public hearing on Friday, and rejected the settlement. He told the lawyers they had to go back to the drawing board, he took away their authority to choose who would evaluate the health claims, and he said he was going to review the size of those attorneys fees.

"This is no ego trip for me," he told the courtroom on Friday, according to the New York Times. "This is work. I will preside over a process that's fair." He went on to say that the settlement was too complicated for the workers to understand what they were getting.

The WTC Captive Insurance Company has about $1.1 billion in a fund set aside for the ailing workers. Christine LaSala, the head of that group, thought Hellerstein's decision was unfortunate. "The judge has now made it more difficult if not impossible for the people bringing these claims to obtain compensation and a settlement," she told the Times.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Congress is reviewing a plan to provide $10 billion for the long-term care of ailing workers -- in essence, creating a whole new health care industry.

It's interesting to note that when this debate began in earnest there was a lot of doubt whether the conditions at Ground Zero caused the illnesses. Few people doubt that today. And even Ground Zero workers with cancer would benefit from the settlement.

But as far as the research goes, especially where it concerns cancer, the research still hasn't proven a direct link between the two.

Back in September, 2009, a health department report said such a relationship was still unknown, but the question was being studied. Notably, eight confirmed cases of multiple myeloma have been found among the 28,252 responders.

Four of those cases involved people younger than 45, which is highly unusual, as it largely strikes people in their seventies. Still, the Health Department says the number is not statistically significant, as that form of cancer is also the second most commonly diagnosed blood cancer in the U.S.

"It is still too early to tell whether WTC exposures caused these cases of multiple myeloma," the report says.


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