NEW YORK — With a firm trial date looming for thousands of lawsuits brought by workers at ground zero against the city, lawyers for both sides are engaged in intensive talks aimed at settling some or all the cases.
The first 12 cases are scheduled for trial on May 16 in Manhattan. But Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein, who is overseeing the litigation — involving rescue and cleanup workers who sued over illnesses and injuries they say stemmed from working at the World Trade Center site in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack — said at a recent hearing that a detailed settlement plan about 70 pages long had been drafted.
“There have been intensive discussions going on looking to settlements of individual cases and globally of all cases,” he said. Lawyers for the plaintiffs and the city declined to comment on the negotiations.
“The parties have been working very hard,” said Hellerstein, of U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. “The settlement is complicated.”
The lawsuits were filed beginning in 2004 by more than 9,000 plaintiffs against 90 government agencies and private companies. Several hundred lawyers are working on the cases, and the court documents run to tens of millions of pages.
The plaintiffs claim that the city, along with its contractors and other major defendants like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, offered inadequate safety procedures and supervision to shield them from exposure to contaminants while working amid the debris in a 16-acre area at the site.
Plaintiffs are seeking compensatory damages for pain and suffering and economic loss, as well as, in certain cases, medical monitoring. They may also seek punitive damages.
James E. Tyrrell Jr., the lead lawyer for the defendants, contends that no link can be proven between the illnesses of plaintiffs and exposure at ground zero, and that some plaintiffs are making false claims. If the cases come to trial, juries will have to decide whether the defendants are at fault, whether the plaintiffs are actually sick and whether their conditions were caused by their work at the disaster site, Tyrrell said.
The litigation is complex and politically charged, involving plaintiffs that include firefighters, police officers, construction workers and other responders who draw public sympathy. Many elected officials and advocacy groups are demanding compensation, long-term medical treatment and monitoring for the workers from the federal government.