Kin of 9/11 victims sue to make point in court

Fund: Rather than take a government payout, some relatives and survivors seek the facts they hope a trial will provide.

January 22, 2004|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Like many who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, 2001, Christine K. Fisher took her time over the past few days. She talked to her father, then her brother when he came into town for a birthday celebration. At last, nearly 24 hours after her lawyer had told her to call with an answer, Fisher picked up the phone to say she would sue.

For Fisher, a Potomac resident whose husband died when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, today is the real deadline for deciding whether to take money from the Victims' Compensation Fund or file lawsuits against the airlines, American and United, whose planes were hijacked.

Although Fisher and most other representatives of the nearly 3,000 people who died in the attacks had applied to the fund by its initial deadline of Dec. 22, applications must be completed today. In the interim, some have also kept lawsuits alive while they tried to decide which course to take.

Fisher's name, for example, waited on a "suspense" docket of 200 Sept. 11-related lawsuits in U.S. District Court in New York City.

Many, like hers, had been filed by people who also applied to the victims' fund, to give themselves one more month to make a decision they had put off for more than two years.

The financial and emotional stakes are high.

The fund was set up by Congress to help families of the victims and limit litigation against the airlines whose jets were hijacked by terrorists.

Two of those planes struck the World Trade Center's twin towers in New York, while a third hit the Pentagon and a fourth crashed into a Pennsylvania field.

By June, the fund will have paid out an estimated $5 billion for 7,200 claims on behalf of the injured and the dead.

But people like Fisher will be among the 2 percent of victims and families who, instead of a check, will get a potentially long wait for trial and the risk of no payout at all.

However, if her lawsuit is successful, Fisher's potential reward is a payment greater than the relatively meager amount she said the fund was likely to give her. Her husband, Gerald "Geep" Fisher, was a human resources consultant who died in the Pentagon. His age - 57 - and life insurance were counted against his widow under the fund's payout rules.

Although her lawyer, Keith Franz, won't let her reveal numbers, Fisher says she was "insulted" by the offer.

"I think what happens is, you get a little angry, not only for the dollar amount, but because it seems the life is of less value," Fisher said this week, dabbing her eyes with a tissue in the living room of the home the couple shared on Democracy Lane.

"It's a toss of the dice, really," she said. "I know there's no guarantee. But my feeling is, a point has to be made."

Some families have balked at accepting a check from the government, even though it will be tax-free and available soon. Some thought their awards unfair, while others didn't trust official investigations to get to the bottom of how the attacks occurred.

"I would like to know who, when, why and how, and I think the answers are out there," said Marcellia Potler, who was married nine days before her father, Ronald Golinski, a civilian Army employee from Columbia, died in the Pentagon. "You could give me nothing as long as you gave me the answers, and I would be happy."

The Golinski and Fisher families are part of a web of litigation that is only a fraction as large as experts predicted in the weeks after the terrorist attacks. Only about 150 aviation cases remain, and Franz, a Towson attorney, predicted that 30 of those would be dropped.

The rest might be heard within two years, he said.

The plaintiffs have until Feb. 6 to decide whether to go forward with their cases. The Fisher and the Golinski families, among others, allege that the airlines, aircraft manufacturers, security companies and airports involved in the attacks did not do enough to prevent them from happening.

Some families are suing terrorist groups and those who might have financed them while also recovering money from the fund, as Congress allowed.

`Tremendous struggles'

New York attorney Marc S. Moller, who is liaison counsel to the court for Sept. 11 plaintiffs, said most of the 400 clients that retained his firm will wind up accepting money from the fund - some of them only after much soul-searching.

"None of these 2,900 cases [is] like any other," Moller said. "There are tremendous struggles going on in each file."

Victor E. Schwartz, general counsel to the American Tort Reform Association, said the fund's special master, Kenneth R. Feinberg, did an excellent job attracting applicants.

A program set up by the American Trials Lawyers Association also provided free legal help to people interested in applying to the fund.

"There's been less chaos," Schwartz said. "People have realized that it's better to go to the fund than sue."

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