Lawyers Pitch In To Aid Families

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by Dan Haar
The Hartford Courant

October 11, 2001

The nation's trial lawyers are creating a not-for-profit company that will represent Sept. 11 terrorist victims and families free of charge, in a move they say is motivated more by a sense of duty than by a desire to counter their frequent portrayal as sharks.

Even the name of the company, Trial Lawyers Care Inc. - TLC - is designed to reflect the national sentiment of cooperation. It will be announced in New York in the coming days, perhaps Monday.

"If a fireman can go into a building and get killed, I can undertake the representation in this case and not take a fee. I'm not getting killed," said Richard A. Bieder, a Bridgeport lawyer on the board of the new company.

TLC, formed by the Association for Trial Lawyers of America, will guide families of the more than 6,000 people killed in the attacks, as well as many who were injured, through hearings in a newly created federal Victims Compensation Fund.

Leaders of the trial lawyers association are also pushing for their colleagues across the nation to forsake lawsuits against the airlines, airport authorities, the World Trade Center and others who could be tapped for partial blame. But on Wednesday, a partner in the nation's most prominent aviation liability firm, based in midtown Manhattan, said it has already signed up clients who may bring lawsuits.

That, some trial lawyers noted, has the potential to get ugly.

"The magnitude of this horrific series of events is so great that if all of these cases came into the court system, justice would be another victim of the attacks," said Larry Stewart, a Miami lawyer who is president of TLC and a former president of the national trial lawyers association.

"It would overwhelm the system's ability to handle these cases, and there is a very great risk that nobody would get full justice," Stewart said.

Besides, he said, an onslaught of lawsuits "would hinder the nation's ability to rebuild."

So far, the lawyers are working with little information. The compensation fund, established by Congress Sept. 21 as part of the airline bailout, has no specified dollar limit on total or individual claims. Its rules are not yet published by the U.S. Justice Department, and its "special master" has not been appointed.

The fund is an unprecedented response to a disaster, and no one knows how much it will pay the victims. Anyone who opts for it would give up the right to sue for damages.

It isn't even clear whether the fund will pay for such expenses as travel and hiring experts that the law firms will incur. But Stewart and Bieder said they expect more than 1,000 lawyers to sign on.

The Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association, based in Hartford, is working on the details with its counterparts in New York, New Jersey and a few other states.

"I've already received, within Connecticut, 40 phone calls from lawyers who say they want to volunteer," said Bieder, of Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder.

One thing the lawyers know is that in this disaster - unlike claims against cigarette-makers, for example - the huge money isn't there. Each airplane that hit a World Trade Center tower carried about $1.5 billion in liability insurance. And the airline bailout law limited the claims to the covered amounts.

Still, said Blanca Rodriguez, a partner at Kreindler & Kreindler in New York, liability lawsuits may have a place in the Sept. 11 attacks.

"It is a very emotional thing for the public to see anyone other than the terrorists as the wrongdoers here. That's a natural response and we feel it as well here."

But, she added, "That does not mean that our system did not break down in one or more places. It does not mean that we should disregard that."

It is a classic argument often used by trial lawyers, that full justice in the courts is the best way to prevent future breakdowns. This time, Kreindler & Kreindler, which represented more than 90 victims in the Pan Am terrorist disaster over Lockerbie, Scotland, is making the argument to its fellow tort attorneys.

The firm would like to participate in the national effort, Rodriguez said, by offering information to the association and by representing the families of police and firefighters free of charge. Beyond that, she said, the firm would charge clients, although at a rate much reduced from the typical 33-percent fee.

That won't work, Bieder and Stewart said. No firm that represents clients for a fee will be allowed to participate in TLC. Moreover, any TLC client that decides in mid-case to bring a lawsuit rather than go through the federal hearing process will be referred to other lawyers.

In other words, they have set it up so that none of the volunteer lawyers can profit from the tragedy.

"We're trying to make it as pure as we possibly can to avoid conflicts," Bieder said.

A spokeswoman for the American Insurance Association, which often vies with the trial lawyers, said her group's main goal is to see that money from the government or the insurance companies flows efficiently to the victims.