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Trial Lawyers Care, a pro bono program set up by the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA), had not represented a single client by the end of 2001. So why is ATLA getting a 2001 Pro Bono award? Immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, ATLA leaders called for a moratorium on lawsuits related to the disaster, while lobbying to include victim-friendly provisions in an airline bailout bill passed less than two weeks later. Perhaps more significantly, ATLA made an open-ended promise to represent, for free, all the families who choose to sign on to a federal compensation program. ATLA made the commitment at a time when no one knew exactly what the federal compensation program for victims would look like and when estimates of the dead ran to more than 6,000. The first response of ATLA was the moratorium. “It all started the day of the attack,” says Larry S. Stewart, a former ATLA president who is serving as president of Trial Lawyers Care. “We were thinking principally that we wanted to have a quiet period where people were not running to the courthouse door or jockeying for position.” On Sept. 12, ATLA President Leo V. Boyle issued a statement: “We, as a nation, must speak at this hour with a single voice, a voice of compassion for the victims and a voice of authority to those who would tear down our society. For this reason, for the first time in our history, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, in this time of national crisis, urges a moratorium on civil lawsuits that might arise out of these awful events.” VICTIM COMPENSATION Just after it issued the moratorium, with the grounded U.S. airlines lobbying for relief on Capitol Hill, ATLA urged that any airline bailout should include money to help the struggling families of the dead and injured. The airlines won a financial bailout package, along with a provision limiting their liability from lawsuits seeking to hold them responsible for all of the deaths and injuries, as well as the untold billions in property damage and other claims. Under the law, signed by President Bush on Sept. 22, the airlines’ liability was limited to their liability insurance coverage, about $1.5 billion per plane. Other potential lawsuit targets — the operators of the World Trade Center and the airports, the manufacturer of the airplanes and the city of New York — would later be granted similar liability limitations. In exchange, the victims and families won the right to choose between compensation from the federal government and traditional lawsuits, subject to the liability caps. ATLA promised to provide pro bono lawyers to all of the families who choose the compensation program. Within 10 days, Trial Lawyers Care had a board of directors and some money, advanced by ATLA, to get started. According to Stewart, Trial Lawyers Care estimates the project will cost about $3.5 million over 2 1/2 years. Because claimants are required to file with the fund by December 2003, the project should wrap up sometime the following year, says Stewart. The money to support Trial Lawyers Care is being raised from ATLA members. No one knows how many of the victims’ families will elect to go through the federal compensation process. The program requires no proof of fault, and promises awards within months rather than years. Trial Lawyers Care adds the attraction of free legal representation, in contrast to contingency fees that can total one-third or more. But awards may be much lower than verdicts won in other air disasters. Boyle and Stewart believe the vast majority of families will choose the quick and sure compensation program over the risk and delay of suing in court. “I want to believe that the vast majority of those folks will sign on,” says Stewart. In setting up Trial Lawyers Care, ATLA leaders have worked closely with the New York State Trial Lawyers Association, whose offices are just a stone’s throw from the World Trade Center site. It was at a meeting with New York trial lawyers to set up Trial Lawyers Care that Boyle says, “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.” When Boyle, a Boston trial lawyer, became president of the 60,000-member group this summer, there was every indication that his one-year term would be a relatively quiet one. After a year in which ATLA members spent much time and money supporting friendly candidates, most of them Democrats, in the 2000 elections, Boyle expected to address organizational issues and to support the Patient’s Bill of Rights that was expected to pass in the fall. The threat of broad federal tort reform, a recurring issue for the group, had been officially defanged when Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party and threw the Senate into Democratic hands. Sept. 11 punched a big hole in those expectations, requiring ATLA leaders to move quickly. The group’s response gave ATLA room to lobby for victim-friendly provisions while avoiding the negative publicity that would result if a few trial lawyers began filing complaints in the emotional atmosphere after the attack. RISKY BUSINESS ATLA took on some risk as well. While most lawyers say the families of those killed or injured at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon would have a tough time proving liability against the airlines, lawsuits on behalf of passengers on the hijacked planes might have generated tens of millions in fees for lawyers who handle mass aviation disasters. Several ATLA members have been outspoken critics of the compensation program and of ATLA’s support for it. If the program is a success, some trial lawyers fear it could fuel calls for more liability limitations, particularly in cases involving terrorism. On the other hand, by signing on to the compensation program in such a public manner, ATLA could also suffer if it is perceived to be unfair to victims and families. Trial Lawyers Care, which had been working out of donated space in the New York offices of the Dallas firm Baron & Budd, planned to open its permanent offices a few blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center on Jan. 7. According to ATLA General Counsel Michael Starr, Trial Lawyers Care plans to have at least three lawyers on-site to help coordinate between victims’ families and their pro bono lawyers, and to provide logistical support. Starr says the city of New York will provide the office space for free or for a very modest rent. So far, about 3,000 lawyers have volunteered to represent victims and their families. Trial Lawyers Care is currently matching families with lawyers. “We already have it more than covered — and we’re good lawyers,” says Mike Eidson, a Florida lawyer who is a former chairman of ATLA’s aviation law section. Eidson says he has six pro bono clients from Sept. 11. While the bare outlines of the federal compensation had been laid out in the September legislation, Trial Lawyers Care had to wait for the Justice Department to issue regulations before it could begin advising clients and volunteer lawyers. Now that a special master has been selected and draft regulations issued, Stewart says lawyers volunteering with Trial Lawyers Care should begin filing claims very soon. “This has just been a monumental undertaking to get this thing up and running,” Stewart says. “Boy, it’s been a lot of work.”

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