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Faced with nearly 1,500 potential Sept. 11 claims that seek nearly $9 billion in total damages, New York City’s Corporation Counsel’s office has created a new division to investigate and defend against possible lawsuits. Of the notices of claim that have been filed so far, about 1,200 — or 80 percent — are from firefighters. Most of those allege the city violated work safety laws by not providing proper equipment, such as respirators, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Officials at Corporation Counsel and plaintiffs’ attorneys agree that in the end, far fewer lawsuits will be filed than the notices of claim indicate. And the city’s liability for such claims may be limited to $350 million by a federal law passed in November. But just as plaintiff’s lawyers have taken the precaution of filing notices as they examine the strength of their suits and contemplate the federal Victim Compensation Fund, Corporation Counsel’s office has decided that now is the time to start preparing to defend the city in the event that lawsuits go forward. The division will consist of 25 attorneys and 17 support staff, including investigators to ferret out false claims. At this point, the unit is examining claims, talking with plaintiffs’ attorneys and gathering thousands of Sept. 11-related documents that could be crucial to future litigation. Nearly $6 million of the office’s $102 million 2003 budget was put aside for the unit when the city council approved the budget earlier this year, with $4 million set aside for salaries. About half of the attorneys in the division have been hired explicitly for this work, either directly from law schools or from careers in litigation. Others have been transferred from other departments. Kenneth Becker, an attorney at the office’s tort division for about five years, will run the operation, aided by Deputy Chief Gary Shaffer. In an interview Friday, Corporation Counsel’s Michael A. Cardozo acknowledged the difficult position, in terms of public relations, that the city might face in defending claims by Sept. 11 victims, especially firefighters who have been universally regarded as heroes. But, he said, the city feels it did everything it could to respond to Sept. 11 and is not liable for the claims. And as the city faces a $5 billion budget deficit, he added, the claims need to be vigorously defended. “Sept. 11 was an act of war,” Cardozo said in an interview Friday. “It was a terrible tragedy that New York City could have in no way predicted.” LIABILITY HURDLES Cardozo said that plaintiffs who bring these types of suits face “enormous liability hurdles,” particularly state and federal immunity statutes. He said that most of those who have filed claims would be eligible for the federal Victim Compensation Fund, which would prove a less costly and more efficient alternative to suing the city. “They don’t have to prove liability,” Cardozo said of those who choose the fund. Peter Johnson Jr. of Leahey & Johnson, an attorney who has represented firefighters in claims against the city, agreed that plaintiffs suing the city would have their work cut out for them. “I believe there will be a staggering falloff between the notice of claims and the actual actions brought,” he said. “Once you look at the facts and the law together, you find that it is a difficult burden.” Johnson said his firm is not representing anyone with a claim against the city, and he has been advising clients to take advantage of the federal fund. “In an emotional sense, litigation is punishing,” he said. “My philosophy is that if there is a real claim, you should bring it. But if there isn’t a claim, then you are not really assisting our society in imposing this kind of burden.” Other plaintiffs’ lawyers, however, said there are viable and reasonable claims out there. Michael A. Barasch of Barasch & McGarry, who is representing about 1,100 firefighters, said the city should have known to have respirators stockpiled and ready for firefighters and police officers in the event of an attack, especially after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. “We would all be better off with the Victim [Compensation] Fund,” Barasch said. But, he added, it remains unclear that the fund will compensate the injured as well as it has promised to compensate the families of those who were killed. Among Barasch’s clients are firefighters who have lost between 20 percent and 30 percent of their lung capacity since inhaling days’ worth of toxins at the World Trade Center while working in the recovery operation. Some will never work again, he said, and others fear their life expectancy has been reduced by as much as 14 years. “I think we have a terrific case against the city, though it’s one I don’t want to bring,” he said. Barasch said the language of last year’s federal law that limited the city’s liability to $350 million for the attacks is unclear when it comes to claims involving the clean-up operation. A spokeswoman for Corporation Counsel’s office suggested that the issue would most likely have to be litigated. Barasch has met several times with Kenneth Feinberg, the special master of the federal fund. Barasch said Feinberg has expressed concern about injured firefighters and a willingness to compensate them for their injuries. He also said he would present a number of cases to the fund next week, which he hopes will give him a better idea of what to expect for his clients. Until then, like the city, he will be preparing for possible litigation.

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