November 29, 2006
SDNY Deals with Influx of 9/11 Cases
The November 2006 issue of The Third Branch, the newsletter of the federal courts, features an article on the judicial burden of handling 9/11-related lawsuits. It anticipates that 6000 such cases will be filed in the Southern District of New York, representing about a sixty percent increase in the district's civil caseload. Judge Alvin Hellerstein, overseeing the litigation, has appointed a mediator and is trying to ensure that the most serious cases move forward first. For the massive number of claims alleging respiratory injury, he intends to appoint a special master, and looks toward the creation of a matrix of settlement values. Here's an excerpt from Litigation Landslide Tests Organization, Creativity:
Now cases involving claims arising out of, resulting from, or relating to the terrorist-related aircraft crashes of September 11, 2001, are being filed in federal court. The plaintiffs—alleging wrongful death, personal or respiratory injury, or property damage—may have lived near or worked on the site, and include city governments, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, private contractors and thousands of firemen, policemen, paramedics and construction workers. It is anticipated that 6,000 cases—all related to September 11, 2001—will be filed in the Southern District of New York, for an estimated 60 percent jump in the district’s civil caseload. As the influx of cases begins, the creativity and organizational abilities of the entire court, beginning with the clerk’s office, are being tested.
All of these cases are ultimately the responsibility of Judge Hellerstein, a native New Yorker and eight-year veteran of the federal bench. He and his two law clerks “use a lot of self-organization,” he said, to deal with the mass of litigation. All Hellerstein’s orders, announcements of conferences, and directions to counsel on the filing of correspondence are posted to the court’s website, at www.nysd.uscourts.gov/Sept11Litigation.htm. He has assigned most of the litigation to tracks and subtracks, separating the cases into, for example, a property damage track, with a subtrack that includes Building 7 claims, and another subtrack with claims among insurance companies. He also holds frequent status conferences on the cases consolidated into wrongful death airline cases, respiratory injury cases, insurance coverage cases and property damage cases, “with the goal of keeping on track and moving the cases along.” Meanwhile, discovery goes forward on a group of wrongful death cases.
But even Hellerstein feels that special handling may not be enough. Many of the wrongful death cases are being mediated with the help of a mediator specially appointed by Hellerstein upon the joint recommendation of plaintiffs and defendants. The more than 3,000 cases— with the potential of growing to 7,500—that allege respiratory injury, “are likely to become unmanageable,” he wrote, and he will be recommending to the parties the appointment of a special master. “The number and complexity of these cases, and the public interest in their speedy resolution, requires a greater urgency in progression, and a closer supervision of proceedings, than heretofore has been possible. The involvement of a Special Master has become necessary.”
Hellerstein’s idea is to have the Special Master work with the parties to develop a matrix of key facts that will enable the parties to place values on categories of cases that can, in turn, lead to groups of settlements.
He is especially concerned that the cases alleging wrongful deaths and personal injuries move forward. “They deserve to go first,” Hellerstein said, “because they involve the immediate victims who died in the airplanes that the terrorists hijacked, or in the infernos this produced.” Many of those cases are currently in mediation, an option Hellerstein encourages.
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