Half-billion dollars settles 9/11 lawsuits

March 13, 2009
Victims' familes confront airline safety workers about their loss

NEW YORK - A mediator said Thursday that all but three of nearly 100 lawsuits brought on behalf of those killed or injured in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have been settled for half a billion dollars. Many of the legal battles hinged not on money, she added, but on a chance for families to express their losses and anger.

Face-to-face encounters between individual families and airline or airline safety representatives proved crucial to resolving at least 30 of the 95 lawsuits brought on behalf of 9/11 victims, mediator Sheila Birnbaum said.

"Some families thought it was important for them to understand the loss that they had sustained" and described how extraordinary their loved ones were, Birnbaum said in an interview. "Others wanted to confront the airlines and tell them how angry they were at what had happened."

Ninety-seven percent of the families of those killed in planes, at the World Trade Center or at the Pentagon on Sept. 11 chose to receive payments from a special fund Congress established that distributed more than $7 billion to over 5,000 survivors.

But 95 lawsuits on behalf of 96 victims were filed by those who chose to reject the fund, the great majority on behalf of families whose loved ones were killed on planes that were hijacked by terrorists. In a report filed in Manhattan federal court on Thursday, Birnbaum said that by the spring of 2006 about 70 cases remained unsettled.

Birnbaum, who was appointed by U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein, said it became apparent that an obstacle to settling many cases was a desire by families to tell their stories and express their feelings to the court or to a representative of the airlines, and to receive condolences from the airlines.

Although most mediations only involve lawyers, she said she realized it was necessary to have the families sit down with the airlines, the airline security companies or, in some cases, the judge.

During a period of months, meetings lasting from minutes to hours were arranged between individual families and the airlines at law firms in Washington, New York City and Boston, Birnbaum said.

"There were lots of tears, even tears of the mediator," Birnbaum said.

Sometimes, she said, family members expressed anger in "many different ways, sometimes with raised voices."

After the meetings, many of the families were able to begin discussing money and settlements eventually resulted, she said.

One of the three remaining lawsuits was brought in spring 2003 by the family of Sara Low, 28, a Boston-based flight attendant who died when American Airlines Flight 11 struck the World Trade Center.

Her father, Mike Low, said in an interview Thursday that he is still seeking a measure of justice and accountability. He added that through the lawsuit, he learned as recently as December about dramatic details of his daughter's heroism in the final 30 minutes of her life.

Low said the discovery process of the lawsuit had caused authorities to reveal that Sara, assigned to the front of the plane, managed to provide the seat numbers of the hijackers to a fellow flight attendant in the back of the plane who relayed them in a phone conversation.

As a result, he said, authorities were able to quickly learn the identities of the hijackers and much more about the attacks, possibly enabling those aboard a flight that crashed in Pennsylvania to know that they needed to try to overpower their hijackers.

"That's a gift to us we would have lost forever" without the lawsuit, he said.

Low said he would consider settling his case before trial if all of the evidence and depositions were made public.

"It's just incredible to me that no one has been held accountable" for security lapses by the airlines and aviation security companies, he said.

"As a parent, I can't stop until I do what Sara would want me to do," he said.

Other cases remaining were filed on behalf of the families of Barbara Keating, 72, of Palm Springs, Fla., also aboard American Flight 11, and the family of Mark Bavis, 31, of West Newton, Mass., a scout for the Los Angeles Kings professional hockey team. He was aboard United Flight 175, which also struck the World Trade Center.

No trial dates have been set.

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