The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund: ten years later
Edward NitkewiczSeptember 09, 2011 3:08 PM
The terrorist attack of September 11th was the most traumatic assault on our nation since the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Americans would unfortunately bear witness to the destruction that a deadly assault on our country could produce. The collective patriotism that arose in the immediate aftermath of the attacks would be a first for a new generation of Americans who will never forget where they were on 9/11.
For many, the days following the attacks brought a considerable amount of soul searching. The gap between “wanting” to help and “ability” to help was different for each of us. We Americans wanted to dig through the rubble for survivors; we wanted to tend to the injured; and we wanted to find and capture the perpetrators of the horrific acts of terror. However, most of us were not firefighters, or doctors, or welders, or heavy machine operators, or crime scene experts.
It was during the days after 9/11 when I questioned my chosen profession. Until that time, I found representing individuals injured by the negligence of others rewarding. I was proud of the fact that I would be an advocate for the rights of those who did not have the financial support enjoyed by insurance companies, corporations and municipalities. I was unbowed by those who would use deplorable terms like “ambulance chaser.” However, advocacy skills were not required on September 11th and the days thereafter. The country needed tradespersons and rescue workers, and apparently not attorneys.
Months later, the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund was created by an act of Congress to compensate the victims of the 9/11 attacks, their estates and their families for their loss. Kenneth Feinberg was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve as Special Master of the Fund. Any family or injured person making a claim to the Fund would irrevocably waive their right to sue the government and airlines involved in the tragic attacks.
Like many others, I knew individuals who lost their lives on 9/11. My college football roommate was Tom Haskell, a firefighter from Seaford. Both Tom and his younger brother Tim, also a firefighter, perished when the towers of the World Trade Center collapsed. The younger brother of my best friend in high school, Patrick Lyons, was a firefighter captured on film that morning as he bravely geared up and ran into the burning buildings of the World Trade Center. His remains were never recovered.
I was asked by the wives of Tom and Patrick to investigate the newly unveiled Victim’s Compensation Fund. I was just starting my own law practice at the time but volunteered to learn everything I could about the Fund and how it worked. I attended several “Town Hall Meetings” where Mr. Feinberg would come to address the families of victims on Staten Island and Long Island. I engaged in lively debate with him on behalf of the firefighters I was now representing. Determining what life insurance or other benefits would be offset by the Fund was a significant legal issue. Projecting through economists the future earnings of each claimant or victim was a tedious but important task. Assembling “simple applications” was in fact an arduous task that called upon my skills as a trial attorney and resulted in three 250 page/35 exhibit trial notebooks for each applicant.
As time quickly passed, I was requested to take on additional claimants. At one Town Hall meeting, Special Master Feinberg himself invited attendees to seek me out if they required counsel who understood the Fund and its procedures. In addition to the Haskell and Lyons families, I was asked to represent the families of firefighters Christopher Sullivan, Andrew Jordan, John Viggiano, II, Michael Kiefer, David Halderman, Kenneth Watson, and George Cain. I was honored to do so and like many of my colleagues, I did on a pro bono basis.
After I filed all nine claims, I received what at first I thought was a “prank” call. “Ed, a Mr. Kenneth Feinberg on line 1.” In fact, Special Master Feinberg learned that I had agreed to represent the families of several firefighters on a pro bono basis and called me personally to offer to personally serve as the hearing officer to my clients. True to his commitment, Mr. Feinberg flew to New York and in one day met with each of my client-families, listened to their stories with compassion and empathy, and evaluated the evidence submitted. Awards were thereafter rendered that fairly compensated the families of the brave firefighters who lost their lives on that fateful day.
The founding partner of the Sanders Law Firm also took on the representation on a pro bono basis the claims of victims who lost their lives at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Stanley J. Sanders spent over a year preparing for the hearings and was able to obtain awards totaling over $20 million dollars for the families he represented.
Over 1000 lawyers who were members of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America joined together to form Trial Lawyers Care, a non-profit organization of attorneys dedicated to providing free legal help to families filing claims with the Victim’s Compensation Fund. Both Stanley J. Sanders and I were proud members of Trial Lawyers Care.
Like Stanley and many of the other lawyers of Trial Lawyers Care, I have remained close to the wonderful people I stood beside during those difficult hearings. The compensation awarded to each family helped them to start rebuilding their lives in the aftermath of the death of their fathers, their husbands, their sons and their brothers. They have all expressed gratitude for my commitment to their claims and to their families.
Serving as an attorney for the families of the brave firefighters of 9/11 is a source of personal and professional pride for me, for Stanley J. Sanders and for all the attorneys who volunteered to help at our countries’ time of need. I was never happier to be a plaintiff’s personal injury attorney then I was at the conclusion of the 9/11 Fund claims.