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The exclusive grant of jurisdiction to the Southern District of New York for all cases arising out of the Sept. 11 terror attacks does not apply to a negligence suit brought by a worker injured in the cleanup effort at Ground Zero, a Southern District judge has ruled. Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein said the Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act was not meant to cover actions not directly related to the destruction of the World Trade Center. The judge, in Graybill v. The City of New York, 02 Civ. 684, rejected a move by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to remove the action of worker Christopher Graybill from state to federal court. “Congress did not intend to oust state court jurisdiction in cases such as this involving injuries common to construction and demolition sites generally, and risks and duties not alleged to be particular to the special conditions caused by the terrorist-related aircraft crashes of September 11,” Hellerstein said. Graybill “was one of the many who went to that nightmare landscape to clean it up,” the judge said. The Grace Industries employee allegedly suffered permanent injuries after a hydraulic claw machine dropped a 1,000-pound steel girder into his work area. Graybill sued in New York Supreme Court charging New York City and the Port Authority with negligence by failure to comply with safety standards set forth in New York Labor Law �� 240 and 241(6). When Congress enacted the Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act on Sept. 22, 2001, it created a federal cause of action for damages “arising out of the hijacking and subsequent crashes” on Sept. 11, and gave the Southern District jurisdiction “over all actions … resulting from or relating to the terrorist-related aircraft crashes.” The act had many purposes, including the rescue of the airline industry. But one of its chief goals was to establish a framework for compensating individuals (or families of individuals) killed or injured in the attacks. To this end, he said, Congress established the Victim Compensation Fund as an alternative to civil litigation. Hellerstein said further, “It is plausible, therefore, to interpret the jurisdictional phrase, ‘resulting from or relating to,’ as applying only to suits by individuals who also had the right to seek compensation from the Fund, and to consider that the exclusive federal jurisdiction should apply only to such claims.” INSURANCE COVERAGE Another section of the act limits liability to the degree of insurance coverage held by an “air carrier, aircraft manufacturer, airport sponsor, or person with a property interest in the World Trade Center.” The Port Authority, as the landlord of the World Trade Center, argued that it fell into the last category, and that Graybill’s action should therefore be subject to the Southern District’s exclusive jurisdiction. Hellerstein disagreed, finding the limitation of liability provision “no more helpful” than the rest of the act. “The Air System Safety Act was passed in relative haste — just 11 days after September 11 — and its legislative history is scant,” he said, with most of the discussion in Congress focusing on the crisis in the airline industry. Despite the lack of legislative history, Hellerstein said the few comments made by legislators on the jurisdictional issue showed that “Congress intended, by consolidating all September 11 suits in one federal court district, to promote efficiency and to protect non-airline defendants against inconsistent and disproportionate results.” However, he said, “despite the lawmakers’ professed concern for consistent results, nowhere does the legislative history suggest that any case, however tangentially connected to the events of Sept. 11,” should be considered part of the exclusive jurisdiction of the Southern District. “A line must be drawn to include that which Congress intended to reach,” the judge said. “There is no suggestion in the text of the Air Safety Act, or its legislative history, that Congress intended to displace the traditional functioning of state laws and state adjudicatory bodies in this kind of dispute.” David Jaroslawicz of Jaroslawicz & Jaros represented Graybill. Thomas Hoey Jr. represented the Port Authority. Joseph Prisco of Malapero & Prisco represented New York City’s insurance carrier.

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