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Sept. 11 workers face deadline for health settlement over toxic dust
NEW YORK -- Thousands of laborers, police officers and firefighters suing New York City over their exposure to toxic World Trade Center dust have until the end of today to decide whether to join a legal settlement that could ultimately pay them as much as $815 million.
More than 10,000 people have sued the city and a long list of companies that handled the massive cleanup of lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Many claim to be suffering from illnesses caused by inhaling the pulverized remnants of the twin towers. Their lawsuits blame the government and its contractors for failing to provide proper equipment to protect their lungs.
The vast bulk of the litigation could be over today.
Paul Napoli, a leader of the legal team representing most of the plaintiffs, said Friday that with today's deadline looming on the largest and most important of several related settlements, 90 percent of those eligible had said "yes" to the deal.
An all-out effort was being made to get the rest to join, he said. He said he and other lawyers in the firm were being besieged with questions from clients still trying to chose between taking the money, or rejecting it and taking their case to trial.
"A lot of people appear to be making a last-minute decision," he said. "It's like tax day ... there is going to be a lot of last-minute wrangling."
Under the terms of the deal, at least 95 percent of the plaintiffs must opt to participate for the settlement to become effective. Napoli said he was feeling good about hitting the target, although he added that getting the paperwork finished for each claim by midnight on the deadline will be no small feat.
"I'm hopeful there will be a little leeway," he said.
The deadline technically applies only to a settlement negotiated between Napoli's legal team and the city's attorneys in the spring. That deal would distribute as much as $712 million among the workers, based on the severity of their illnesses and the likelihood they could be linked to the Sept. 11 attacks.
But since that deal was inked, the firm has worked out similar agreements with other defendants in the case, including the agency that owns the World Trade Center site, that will add to the total value of the pot.
An insurance company that represented the operators of barges that carried rubble from Manhattan to Staten Island after the attacks has agreed to settle for $28 million, Napoli said. Other entities have agreed in principle on settlements that will add another $100 million, he said.
Some rescue and recovery workers who had been outspoken critics of the deal early on have decided in the end to sign.
Retired fire department Lt. Kenny Specht, who now leads a fraternal group for New York firefighters, was among them.
Like others, he said the payments responders will receive under the deal will never be enough to compensate for their illnesses. But he called the settlement, "the best we were going to do."
Fighting for more money in court, he said, seemed like it could wind up a losing battle, in part because "the shelf life" of sympathy for Sept. 11 responders is running out.
"I felt in my bones that it was expiring," he said.
He added that he was also concerned about the difficulty of trying to prove that common illnesses like cancer were caused by trade center dust. So far, scientists studying the issue has yet to find any such link.
"We are nine years outside of Sept. 11, and we live in a very technologically advanced time," he said. "If nine years after the fact, they have still not attributed the cancers that are killing us to 9/11, either they have that information, and there is no way they are going to publish it, or there just isn't a correlation."