The 11,000 rescue and recovery workers sickened from their days toiling in the debris of the World Trade Center must be heard before a $657 million proposed settlement is put to a vote, the federal judge overseeing the case said yesterday, The New York Post reported.
Even as city officials and the plaintiffs' lawyers vowed the settlement would meet approval, Manhattan federal Judge Alvin Hellerstein urged caution.
Hellerstein, who along with 95 percent of the sickened workers must sign off on the settlement, invited the workers to testify at a public hearing next week to determine if the deal is "fair, appropriate and just to all affected."
The proposed settlement, which comes just two months before the first 12 lawsuits were to begin, would resolve thousands of legal claims by Ground Zero workers without the city admitting responsibility for their illnesses.
Hellerstein blasted a provision that kept attorneys' fees at prevailing rates of 25 to 33 percent and called for them to be cut to 15 percent.
He also said amendments to the settlement are still possible.
As currently structured, 95 percent of the claimants must vote to approve the settlement, which would provide them anywhere from $3,200 to $2 million, before attorney fees, in exchange for dropping their suits.
Only $575 million is guaranteed from the WTC Captive Insurance Co., a nonprofit controlled by Mayor Bloomberg that manages the $1 billion allocated by Congress, but the settlement pot could grow to $657 million depending on how many workers ultimately approve it.
They have 90 days to vote, and the clock started Thursday.
"By far, the calls are running positive. The clients are quite relieved that an end is in sight," said Marc Bern, a senior partner with the law firm Worby, Groner, Edelman & Napoli, Bern LLP, which negotiated the deal.
But long-suffering workers and their advocates weren't as upbeat.
"As it stands now, I'd tell them to stick it," said former NYPD Officer Glen Klein, who was stricken with respiratory illnesses after toiling 800 hours at Ground Zero.
Like other workers, Klein lamented the lack of continued comprehensive health coverage in the settlement.
"The money will be gone in months. Once you have done this, you are done, you are not eligible for anything else," he said, noting that many of his treatments are not covered by his insurance.
That sentiment was echoed by John Feal of the FealGood Foundation, an organization dedicated to 9/11-responder health ailments.
"Look, if you've got cancer and are going through chemo with those medical bills, $1 million goes pretty fast," he said.
Overall, however, Hellerstein was impressed with the deal.
"This will not be a giveaway," he said. It "will be as fair and as just as we can make it."
Separately, the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which provides for lifetime health coverage to Ground Zero workers, remains pending in Congress.