Bin Laden, the millionaire identified by the Bush administration as a prime suspect in the bombing, is a more tempting target. He has been sued by the children of a Defense Department employee who was killed in 1995 by a car bomb in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden allegedly masterminded the explosion, according to U.S. officials.
"There's movements afoot to go after terrorist states and the terrorist groups on some mammoth class action, and the insurance industry would probably want to join in, as would the government," Coale says. "Whether you're going to get paid or not in the end, who knows. A lot of people just want to do it - to do it."
James L. Elsman, the lawyer who filed the Riyadh case, thinks victims of the attacks Sept. 11 could automatically be joined to his lawsuit if it is established that bin Laden - or other terrorist groups he also sued - ordered the attacks.
But Coale acknowledges that such a case would be a largely symbolic gesture. The Riyadh case, for example, is on hold. Bin Laden, believed to be hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan, is impossible to serve with court papers. The case also awaits the outcome of a criminal prosecution of bin Laden and his associates; under the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act, a conviction would also prove the civil case.
As satisfying as such an outcome might be, Victor Schwartz, a Washington lawyer who is of counsel to the American Tort Reform Association, urges a different approach.
He says Congress should bring together all of the money available for victims - including some of the nearly $600 million in private donations - to avoid inequitable distribution of available compensation.
Without a central system, he says, justice could easily be turned on its head. Someone who became traumatized after watching the attack on television could recover millions of dollars in court, while a firefighter's widow might then be unable to recover anything.
"Tort law here is not the solution to the people's grief," Schwartz says. "To sort of circle around like buzzards in the sky and say this is a lawsuit festival - that's unfortunate."