As the ten-year anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks approaches, progress finally seems at hand: a recognizable building rises from a long-vacant lot in Lower Manhattan; waterfalls flow for the first time into the footprint of the former North Tower; and, this week, the vast majority of rescue workers accept a settlement providing for payouts relating to health-related claims rooted in work done in the months and years following the attacks.
Just over 95 percent of the over 10,000 rescue workers agreed to the settlement, bringing an end to years of high-profile and contentious litigation. The agreement provides for a total payout of between $625 million and $815 million.
Workers will receive payments of between $3,250 to $1.8 million, depending on the nature of their injuries. The lower figure represents the payout to workers who have suffered no actual injury but must live with the fear that they will eventually get sick; the higher figure correlates with plaintiffs who can show a connection between a loved one's death and that person's time at Ground Zero.
The agreement divides workers into four "tiers,â€ with the fourth tier representing the most severely injured workers. Those workers, who account for more than half of the plaintiffs, will get around 94 percent of the payment.
Under the settlement, the amount each plaintiff will receive is based, in part, on how closely that person's condition can be linked to exposure to the toxins present at the site. As a result, plaintiffs with asthma stand to receive a bigger payout than some plaintiffs with cancer, since the former is more strongly "linkedâ€ to the contaminants.
"A very good deal"
U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein, who is overseeing the litigation, in June called the settlement "a very good deal," and encouraged workers to opt in rather than continue litigation. The remark carried extra weight in light of the fact that Hellerstein had thrown out a previous agreement in March, ruling that it provided too much to attorneys and too little to plaintiffs.
That settlement would have resulted in aggregate payments of between $575 million and $657 million, with lawyers taking what Hellerstein called "a very large bite" -- nearly one-third of the total settlement.
Following that ruling, attorneys reached an agreement that provided $125 million more for plaintiffs while reducing lawyers' fees to 25 percent. Hellerstein found those terms acceptable, calling the agreement "imperfect but fair.â€
In order for the settlement to take effect, at least 95 percent of workers needed to opt in; the final count, as of Friday, was just a hair over that, at 95.1 percent.
Lawyers, mayor satisfied with result
Judge Hellerstein wasn't the only one pleased with the outcome of the litigation.
"We negotiated for over two years to achieve this settlement for our clients, which we truly believe is the best result, given the uncertainty of protracted litigation," Paul Napoli, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told The Wall Street Journal.
And, in a statement, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg called the settlement "a fair and just resolution of these claims, protecting those who came to the aid of this city when we needed it most."