Court Suggests N.Y. City Could be Liable for 9/11 Workers’ Health

October 3, 2007

A federal appeals court panel suggested this week that New York City is not immune from liability in 8,000 cases accusing it and others of failing to properly protect workers cleaning up the World Trade Center site after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The city’s lawyer, James Tyrrell, argued that his client, contractors and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the site, are not liable for respiratory illnesses and other injuries suffered by thousands of people who cleaned up the site. He cited a 1951 state law protecting municipalities from lawsuits for actions they take responding to attacks.

Tyrrell said the ultimate decision of what is owed “the heroes of 9/11 is a congressional decision, not a judicial one.”

The three-judge panel, however, repeatedly suggested it believed the defendants are not entirely immune from lawsuits and questioned whether the city even had a right to appeal the issue at this stage of the litigation.

Lawyers said it appeared it could take three to four more years for the lawsuits to reach trial. The appeals court in Manhattan reserved decision after hearing nearly two hours of arguments.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein in Manhattan ruled that the defendants were immune for actions taken immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks but that the immunity did not extend for the entire nine months of the cleanup.

Judge Jon Newman said he believed the lawyers should try to reach a resolution in the cases because $1 billion set aside by Congress to handle claims by injured workers was not getting “to the people who need it before they die waiting for the distribution.”

Port Authority lawyer Richard Williamson urged the appeals court “to grant the dismissal of these cases and let Congress consider whether it wants to consider a second victims’ compensation fund.”

A victims’ compensation fund established by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks has paid $6 billion to 2,880 families of those who died in the attacks and more than $1 billion to 2,680 injured victims.

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