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In the wake of the World Trade Center attack, plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyers report being caught in a vise of two contradictory forces — both of them bad. On one side, they say, this is a terrible time to take a case to a jury because even a tragic case, such as a baby born with severe brain injuries, pales by comparison to horrors experienced by the thousands of victims of the terrorist attack. On the other, the unexpected closing of the courts and the disruption to thousands of lawyers on both sides of the personal injury bar has put plaintiffs’ firms under significant economic pressure. Unlike their defense firm counterparts, plaintiffs’ cash flow is disrupted when settlements and verdicts dry up because cases are not moving out to jury selection. Plaintiffs’ lawyers in New York City are “between a rock and a hard place,” said Martin Edelman of Edelman & Edelman. “We just have to be brave enough to go into the mouth of the lion and find out one way or the other what juries are going to do.” There may be some light at the end of the tunnel, though. Administrative judges in the New York Supreme Court report that civil jury trials should soon be back to normal. And statistics for the two weeks ending Oct. 5 show that the pace of civil trials has begun to pick up, even to some extent in Manhattan, which experienced the most disruption from the Sept. 11 attack. Criminal trials, however, have continued to lag because police officers have been unavailable to testify in hearings and at trials. Reflecting on the current litigation environment, Robert Conason, a name partner at the plaintiffs’ firm Gair, Gair, Conason, Steigman & Mackauf, said there is “uniform agreement” among seasoned litigators that “this is a very disadvantageous time to try a case.” “An amputation or even a brain-damaged baby differs by an order of magnitude by the harm suffered by the 6,000 victims and their families,” Conason added. Another plaintiffs’ lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, cited a psychological factor that could result in lower verdicts. “Jurors like everyone else are numb — it’s a coping mechanism — to shut down your sensibilities to other people’s misfortune in the face of such a great tragedy,” she said. Several plaintiff’s lawyers pointed out that at least two major institutional defendants have been sidelined indefinitely because of the attack. The legal department of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was housed at the doomed north tower of the World Trade Center, and the main office of the City Corporation Counsel is at 100 Church Street, just one block north of the complex. Lawyers reported that the Corporation Counsel’s Office, which has not yet been allowed back into 100 Church Street, has been getting four-month adjournments of trial-ready cases. Jeffrey S. Green, the Port Authority’s general counsel, said that all of his office’s active litigation files were at One World Trade Center and are in the process of being reconstructed. The cases are being adjourned until the first of the year, he said, and will be re-evaluated then. The future for cases against New York City may be bleak in any event, suggested Joseph W. Belluck, a toxic tort lawyer with Baron & Budd. How are juries going to evaluate routine cases against New York City when “the city is trying to rebuild a significant portion of Manhattan?” he asked. Another plaintiffs’ lawyer suggested that given the current “high public esteem” for police officers and firefighters,” cases against them are going to be particularly difficult. Adding to plaintiffs’ lawyers anxieties is concern over the financial viability of insurance carriers in the wake of the attack. Earlier this month, Pennsylvania regulators shut down Reliance Insurance Co., which was in financial trouble before the attack, in part because of delays in getting payments from reinsurers. State regulators had attributed the delayed payments to problems the attacks had caused for reinsurers. Larry H. Lum, a defense lawyer with Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, said he detects “a tone of desperation” in plaintiffs’ lawyers as they ask “how am I going to get paid on this case.” ECONOMIC WOES In addition to that bleak litigation climate, plaintiffs face equally bleak — and immediate — financial straits. The courts were out of commission for at least a week, and many plaintiffs’ lawyers were unable to get into their offices for two weeks or more. Now, some plaintiffs’ lawyers complain that they must fight through a blizzard of excuses from defense lawyers who claim that they are still experiencing problems in getting their offices back in operation. “Defense lawyers are milking this to a fare-thee-well — one attorney said that his staff could not work because the air smells bad,” Edelman reported. Harvey Weitz, of Schneider, Kleinick, Weitz, Damashek & Shoot, also reported having “to fight through excuses” to get cases sent out to trial. A court source in Brooklyn reported an unusual turnaround from normal practice. Usually lawyers appeal to the administrative judge to reverse orders forcing them to go to trial when they are not ready. In recent weeks, this source reported, plaintiffs’ lawyers in several cases had sought administrative relief from adjournments granted to accommodate defense lawyers who had cited problems connected to the attack. In any event, the delays have affected the bottom line of some plaintiffs’ firms. Edelman said he had cut salaries at his four-lawyer firm by 20 percent. And Weitz cited the slowdown in processing cases in court as a factor in his firm’s decision to lay off two lawyers, one part-timer and three support staff. PROGRESS IN THE BRONX Meantime, statistics collected for the two weeks ending Oct. 5 show that the Bronx has made the most progress toward normality. Because criminal trials have been few and far between, Bronx Administrative Judge Luis Gonzalez said he has had more jurors available for civil cases. A chronic shortage of jurors has historically been a “big limitation” in sending cases out for trial, he explained. In the two weeks before Oct. 5, 32 civil jury trials started in the Bronx, compared with 33 during the same period a year earlier. Twelve of those cases were presided over by justices assigned to the court’s criminal division. In Queens, jury selection started in only about half as many cases this year, compared with last year. But that has been enough, Administrative Judge Steven W. Fisher said, to keep all the court’s civil division judges busy. The falloff in numbers from last year — from roughly 40 to 20 a week — is mainly attributable to the difficulties that institutional defendants, such as the Corporation Counsel’s office, have experienced because of the disaster, he said. In Manhattan, where jurors first returned on Sept. 24, a week later than elsewhere in the city, the number of civil jury trials lag more than 75 percent behind last year’s level, 15 compared with 61 a year ago. Manhattan Administrative Judge Jacqueline W. Silbermann said the problem stemmed from the large numbers of lawyers in Manhattan who were unable to get into their offices in the “frozen zone” beneath 14th Street for a substantial period of time. Nonetheless, Justice Silbermann pointed out, the figures show a definite upward trend with only four civil trials the first week jurors came back, and 11 the next week. Last Tuesday, 13 cases were sent out to select and the court at 60 Centre Street ran out of jurors, a court aide reported.

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