Looming lawsuits trivialize Sept. 11

January 11, 2002|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

SOMETIME BETWEEN now and the end of the month, Kenneth Feinberg will finalize his plan to give thousands of people millions of dollars. This will make many of those people very angry.

Truth is, they've already heard the plan in its preliminary form and the response has been ... well, let's call it less than enthusiastic. Beth Murphy, for one, said it made her want to vomit.

Ms. Murphy is one of thousands of people who lost a family member - in her case, a husband - on Sept. 11.

Just before Christmas, Mr. Feinberg, a Washington attorney named by the government to administer a multibillion-dollar fund for victims of the terrorist attack and their families, revealed how he proposes to split that money among Ms. Murphy and other survivors.

Under a complex formula that takes into account a victim's age, income and number of dependents, he envisions cash awards ranging from a low of a few hundred thousand dollars to a high of more than $4 million.

The average family would receive $1.6 million, though the awards would be reduced by the amount of a victim's life insurance or the value of his or her pension.

Private charity donations would not count against the award.

Not enough, say some of the families. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to describe their reaction as caustic.

"This is what me and my two children will get for murder?" demanded Ms. Murphy. She calls the proposed payout "a sick joke."

It's an unfortunate comment that has been reprinted nationwide. Nor does it seem out of line with the view of other victims' families.

Congress created the fund to encourage families not to pelt the financially vulnerable airline industry with lawsuits.

But as Steve Push, treasurer of a group called Families of Sept. 11, said, "In case we're not successful in changing their minds during the public comment period, we are exploring our legal options and lining up attorneys."

Which is, in a word, lamentable. Not least because it's a public relations blunder. Makes the families appear - APPEAR, mind you - grasping and ungrateful in the face of an unprecedented outpouring of charity.

Certainly, these folks would not be human if they didn't feel anger over the crime committed against them, committed actually against all of us. Just as certainly, there's room for improvement in the government's offer. For instance, the provision requiring the awards to be offset by insurance or pension money seems needlessly punitive.

For all that, though, there's something impractical and offensive about the idea of lawyers circling this tragedy. I am, I'll grant, no legal scholar, but it's hard to see whom you sue here. The airlines because they failed to foresee the unforeseeable? New York City because it allowed skyscrapers to be built where they might be hit by hijacked airplanes?

And assuming the point of all this is to ensure that a victim's family is cared for, it's hard to see how that end is served by lawsuits that are likely to drag on unresolved for a decade or more, creating monstrous attorney fees that chew up a substantial part of the settlement.

Still, the thing that troubles me most about the talk of lawsuits is that it seems to trivialize what happened.

Lawsuits are, of course, the American way. When your life is devastated by tragedy or just nicked by inconvenience, you find somebody to sue. In this way, you are compensated.

But the magnitude of this crime is such that none of us can ever be compensated. This is the bitter truth I suspect many victims' families have not yet come to terms with. And here, I'm thinking specifically of Beth Murphy. Certainly, she and her daughters should receive enough money to maintain the lifestyle her husband's salary afforded them.

But when she scornfully questions "what me and my two children will get for murder," she seems to demand something beyond that. Seems to demand compensation for her loss, an amount to make her whole.

And surely she must know: No one can write a check big enough for that.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may reach him via e-mail at leonardpitts@mindspring.com or by calling toll-free 1-888-251-4407.

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