Families of Sept. 11 victims face difficult choice

Filing claims precludes further legal action

December 22, 2003|By Stevenson Swanson | Stevenson Swanson,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW YORK - With today's deadline of applying for a compensation fund set up by Congress, families of victims of the Sept. 11 terror attacks are facing a tough decision.

Do they submit claims, or do they persevere with a potentially long-shot legal fight to get answers about what happened on Sept. 11?

Despite the emotional challenge of filling out the highly detailed application forms, most families have elected to join the federal Sept. 11th Victim Compensation Fund rather than pursue expensive and uncertain lawsuits against governmental agencies and airlines.

As of last week, families of 2,521 victims had filed claims with the fund, which was created by Congress less than two weeks after the terrorist attacks. Those claims represent 85 percent of the 2,976 people who were killed at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed near Shanksville, Pa.

"The bottom line was that there really wasn't much choice," said Lynn Faulkner, whose wife, Wendy, an employee of Chicago-based insurance services giant Aon Corp., died in the south tower of the World Trade Center and who submitted his claim this month. "I agonized for a long time, but what responsible parent wouldn't take this choice, if it's the only viable one?"

But at least 73 people have sued an array of defendants, including the federal government, American Airlines and United Airlines - the companies that owned the four planes involved in the attacks - and the trade center's owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Today's deadline has not shaken their resolve to push ahead with their lawsuits, which most say they are pursuing not to win huge financial judgments. Instead, they see their lawsuits as the only way to force the disclosure of internal documents that could demonstrate how security lapses or inadequate procedures allowed the terror attacks to succeed.

"My mind hasn't changed one iota," said Monica Gabrielle, whose husband, Rich, also worked for Aon. "The fund does not supply the accountability and the answers that I so desperately want to see."

Although the fund is an attempt to compensate family members for their pain and suffering and to make up for the lost earnings of victims, it was also meant to shield airlines from lawsuits that could result in multimillion-dollar judgments. In return for signing up for the fund, family members give up the right to sue.

In addition to relatives of those who died, people who were injured in the attacks are also eligible to file for compensation. In either case, the deadline is midnight today.

Kenneth Feinberg, the fund's special master, said field offices in the Boston, New York and Washington areas would remain open tonight for last-minute filers. Extending the deadline is not an option. An attempt to keep the fund open for another year fell flat in the Senate last month.

"I'm hopeful we'll get the bulk of them," Feinberg said, referring to those who haven't filed.

The fund has paid out nearly $1.5 billion, with payments to victims' families ranging from $250,000 to $6.9 million. For the more than 2,500 claims filed for injuries, compensation has ranged from $500 to $7.9 million.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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