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Not long after Sept. 11, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America made an unprecedented promise, without knowing exactly what it was getting into. While lobbying for a bill to compensate families of people killed and injured in the terrorist attacks, ATLA said it would provide free lawyers to the thousands of people expected to go through a compensation process that hasn’t yet been set up. Now, the group, which represents plaintiffs’ lawyers, is working furiously to put together a huge program that will coordinate hundreds of volunteer lawyers, thousands of clients and, most likely, involve billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded compensation. And despite the skepticism of defense lawyers and the doubts of some of its own members, ATLA plans to launch the project, called Trial Lawyers Care, or TLC, today. “If a fireman can run back into the building and die to rescue people he doesn’t even know, the least I can do is represent his children for free,” ATLA President Leo Boyle said, to the cheers of New York trial lawyers meeting to set up the program. TLC will represent people who elect to claim money from a government fund created in the airline bailout legislation passed on Sept. 22. The fund will pay the claims of people who were injured or who lost family members in the attacks on the World Trade Center or the Pentagon or in the crash in Shanksville, Pa. They don’t have to prove fault, and the process is supposed to take months, rather than years. But claimants give up punitive damages. And, at least until the U.S. Department of Justice issues proposed regulations, which a spokesman says should be at the end of the month, no one knows how the claims process will work. THE NONPROFIT ATLA has formed a nonprofit corporation to oversee TLC, says Larry Stewart, the Miami lawyer who is TLC’s president. Stewart guessed the effort will cost at least $1 million, but says he is still “pretty much in the dark” on its full cost, at least while the group determines whether it can find donated office space in Manhattan. In addition to offices, TLC needs to hire staff and set up processes to screen and train the lawyers representing Sept. 11 families. TLC does have a Web site, www.911lawhelp.org, and a toll-free number, (888) 780-8637. And they hope to start filing claims as soon as the system is in place. According to Stewart, lawyers representing TLC clients may not be retained for a fee if the client decides to sue in federal court in Manhattan, where all of the lawsuits must be filed under the federal compensation law. The law also requires families to make a binding decision either to file a claim against the fund or to sue in court. This has convinced most plaintiffs’ lawyers to wait before filing any complaints, reinforcing ATLA’s call for a moratorium on Sept. 11 lawsuits, issued two days after the attacks. (The only crack in the dike, one month after the attacks, appears to be a suit filed by Philadelphia lawyer James E. Beasley targeting Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan and the Taliban.) And federal law prohibits lawyers from directly soliciting business from families and survivors for 45 days after an aviation disaster. RAISING QUESTIONS Still, a few lawyers have taken out ads or have used public relations people to help get their criticisms of the fund and the moratorium into the press. “I’m not going out and aggressively looking for clients at this point,” says Jack Yankowitz of the five-lawyer Yankowitz Law Firm in Great Neck, N.Y. Nevertheless, “a number of people have asked us to represent them,” he says. Yankowitz’s firm has reserved the Internet domain names www.wtclawhelp.com, www.worldtradecenterlawyers.com and www.worldtradecenterlawhelp.com. (There is no content on these sites yet.) The firm also recorded a commercial, offering sympathy to victims’ families — and including the firm’s telephone number — which was aired on at least two New York area television stations in the weeks after Sept. 11, according to Yankowitz. A few other trial lawyers, particularly those who specialize in air disasters, have criticized the system and questioned the need for a moratorium. “What the people don’t need is a moratorium,” says New York lawyer Aaron Broder. “What the people need is advice. This discourages people from thinking about their rights.” Broder took out a small ad on the front page of The New York Timesand has contacted reporters with criticisms of the fund. Broder says he is concerned families will “rush pell-mell into the fund” without fully considering their options. ATLA President Boyle says he thinks the fund, and ATLA’s pro bono lawyers, will be used by most families. “There’s a huge math problem that anyone who’s critical of the fund has to deal with, particularly if they represent a New York person,” says Boyle. United Airlines and American Airlines carried $3.2 billion in liability insurance on the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, he says. And the airline bailout law limits total recoveries against the airlines to their liability insurance. Projected claims against that fund from the World Trade Center could involve tens of billions in property damage and business interruption claims, to say nothing of the personal injury and wrongful death claims. And everyone agrees that litigation could take years. While claims involving the Pentagon and Pennsylvania crashes face similar insurance limits, many fewer claims are expected.

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