NEW YORK - Lawyers for the families of four victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are urging a judge to reconsider his decision to reject $28.5 million in settlements that he now says are excessive compared with those other survivors received.
U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein had approved four settlements ranging from $5.5 million to $8 million weeks ago, but reversed himself July 24, saying the amounts were "disproportionately large" and that they "embarrass and prejudice" those who settled earlier. He referred to the four victims as "modest wage earners at the Pentagon."
Their families were among fewer than 100 who sued over deaths or injuries from the Sept. 11 attacks. More than 5,000 others received money from a special fund established by Congress that distributed more than $7 billion.
Hellerstein said individuals who went to court generally won larger awards than those who opted to file claims with the Victim Compensation Fund, but that those who filed lawsuits may have faced more expenses, as well as the added risks and challenges of litigation. The specifics of settlements that were not rejected have been kept secret.
Judge criticized lawyers' fee
Hellerstein harshly criticized the lawyers in the four rejected settlements, saying the 25 percent fee they requested was far above the 15 percent given most other lawyers handling the cases. He accused the lawyers of trying to get a "very large windfall" of more than $7 million of the total $28.5 million agreed to by insurance companies for airlines and airport-security companies.
Baltimore lawyer Jonathan Asrael, who represented the families, said in papers filed in federal court Monday that the settlements were fair and should be reinstated.
"Vacating settlements which were previously approved for these families has rubbed raw the wounds of September 11. It has caused severe upset, disappointment and for some, anger," he wrote.
Families who filed lawsuits have said they did so seeking answers rather than money, on matters such as how the terrorists made it through airport checkpoints.
Asrael said the plaintiffs were not available to comment on the judge's ruling, but in an affidavit unsealed Wednesday, one of the four plaintiffs, a 57-year-old woman whose husband worked for the Army at the Pentagon, supported the law firm's 25 percent fee.
She said she pursued the suit in part for "moral reasons of corporate responsibility and a desire that U.S. taxpayers not be required to pay for my family's loss," adding that she has been satisfied by the outcome.
'A deal is a deal'
Even with her lawyers' 25 percent fee, she wrote, she is still getting about $1.75 million more than she would have had she followed the mediator's recommendation.
"My attorneys' fees were agreed at 25 percent, were earned at 25 percent and I request that Your Honor please pay these attorneys' fees at 25 percent of my recovery," she wrote April 16. "Ultimately, I believe that 'a deal is a deal.' I received what I bargained for and our outstanding attorneys should receive what they bargained for as well."
Hellerstein said he was concerned that the hefty sums would not be fair to the plaintiffs who settled their lawsuits long ago.
"Although I approved the settlements, I did so without being aware of the considerations that now impel me to disapprove them," he wrote.
He also scolded the lawyers for "coasting" on the efforts of the attorneys who handled the previous settlements, essentially accusing them of playing a waiting game in order to get more money for their clients.
In response, Asrael said his law firm had done considerably more work than most other lawyers in the cases, including participating in depositions of airport workers who had screened the hijackers of the plane that struck the Pentagon.
With the seven-year anniversary of the attacks just weeks away, Hellerstein's ruling provided a status report on the more than 10,000 lawsuits slowly winding through the courts.
He said settlements had been reached in all but a dozen of the 95 wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits he oversees stemming from the Sept. 11 attacks. The judge also is responsible for thousands of lawsuits brought by workers involved in the search, rescue and clean-up efforts at the World Trade Center after the attacks.