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The airline bailout bill will likely prevent an unseemly rush to file lawsuits on behalf of those killed and injured in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, lawyers say. But the law, rushed through Congress less than two weeks after the attacks, left many lawyers wondering exactly how it will work. “If you look at this thing, there’s more unanswered questions than answered questions,” says Thomas A. Demetrio of Chicago’s Corboy & Demetrio. “This is a real mess.” The September 11 Victim Compensation Fund of 2001, part of the broader airline bailout signed by President Bush on Sept. 22, sets up a two-track system for claims on behalf of the dead and injured. Victims and families can choose to have their claims heard by a special master, to be appointed by Attorney General John Ashcroft within the next three months. Or they can sue, subject to some limitations. Claimants who go through the special master process don’t have to prove that American Airlines or United Airlines — or any other defendants, for that matter — were at fault. They merely have to establish their damages, which can include future lost income, medical expenses, funeral costs and pain and suffering. The federal government will pay claims approved by the special master. PAYMENT IN MONTHS A major benefit of the process is that financially strapped families can look forward to getting a check less than five months after filing their claims. In contrast, many disaster cases can take years to litigate. Lawyers are still sorting out most of the suits that grew out of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. In exchange, though, they waive the right to sue in court. Punitive damages are barred, and there are no appeals. The awards will be reduced by the amount of insurance, workers’ compensation and other death benefits. “Whether the system is good depends on the special master and what standards he uses,” says James P. Kreindler, an expert on airline disaster cases at New York’s Kreindler & Kreindler. “I can think of people who would be good and other people who would be awful,” he says. The law says little about what sort of evidence will be considered or how what other rules will apply. Those details are left for the special master to set. “Basically, it gives the attorney general carte blanche to make up any rules he wants,” says Demetrio, the Chicago plaintiffs’ lawyer. The administrative process will likely be attractive to most of the people who were in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon when the planes crashed. Many lawyers say it would be difficult to prove that the airlines or other defendants should have foreseen, and prevented, the deaths on the ground. At the same time, the bill will likely protect American and United from thousands of ground claims that, they argued to Congress, could bankrupt them. BACKED BY ATLA The Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA), which called for a moratorium on filing lawsuits in the immediate wake of the disaster, supports the Sept. 11 compensation bill and will offer pro bono lawyers to claimants who choose the administrative process. ATLA spokesman Carlton Carl says several hundred lawyers have already volunteered to help. Plaintiffs’ lawyers who support the law say it guarantees speedy compensation for the thousands of families of people killed in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, who might otherwise have had a difficult time winning anything. And the limits on people who chose to sue are minimal, they say. In addition, the bill and the moratorium avoid the specter of lawyers appearing to be hustling business in the wake of a national tragedy. Still, some defense lawyers fear the system will influence plaintiffs’ lawyers to steer clients toward in-court litigation, where the lawyers can more easily charge fees. “Once plaintiffs’ lawyers get involved, protestations to the contrary, we can see fewer people going through the system and more people suing,” says Mark Dombroff, a partner at Washington, D.C.’s Dombroff & Gilmore and an expert in aviation law. Three families have so far retained Demetrio’s firm, he says, and they are not being charged. If they decide to sue, he says, they will then discuss fees, which he says will be “greatly reduced.” COURT OPTION Claimants who choose to bypass the special master may file lawsuits in federal court for the Southern District of New York, headquartered just blocks from the ruined World Trade Center. The law limits the total damages from all court claims against American and United to the limits of their liability insurance coverage, reported to be approximately $6 billion. The 266 passengers and crew of the hijacked airplanes have the strongest claims against the airlines, lawyers say. Many may choose to sue, lawyers say. But the law will probably make most lawyers wait a while before suing. That’s because once a claimant chooses either to file an administrative claim or to sue in court, there’s no turning back. The other option is immediately waived. As a result, many lawyers plan to wait and see how the process works and learn whether the special master is generous or stingy with the government’s money before making the call. “Somebody’s got to go first,” says Kreindler, whose firm has six clients from the Sept. 11 attacks. “It will probably be somebody who can afford to take a risk — somebody with millions of dollars already. They can afford to be one of the guinea pigs.” While most plaintiffs’ lawyers agreed that setting up a process to resolve the claims outside the courtroom is appropriate, given the dimensions of the catastrophe, some were worried about the precedent it might set. “The old system worked fairly well,” says Aaron Podhurst of Miami’s Podhurst, Orseck, Josefsberg, Eaton, Meadow, Olin & Perwin. “If the airline did something bad, they’d be held responsible. When you give immunity to somebody, you take away the motivation and the incentive to do something well,” he says.

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