Settlements Do Not Deter 9/11 Plaintiffs Seeking Trials
By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS
Families of 14 of the people killed in the planes hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001, have settled their lawsuits, but relatives of other victims said yesterday that they would continue fighting in court to address their questions about how Islamic terrorists bypassed airport security, commandeered four jets and killed thousands of people.
One of those relatives, Mike Low, whose 28-year-old daughter, Sara, was a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to strike the World Trade Center, said he was not deterred by the settlements, which were filed Monday in Federal District Court in Manhattan.
“The frustrating thing is not having a trial date,” he said yesterday. “The wheels of justice turn excruciatingly slow. It doesn’t change my mind any. My desire and goal is to try to find some answers. I want to know why Abdulaziz Alomari and Mohamed Atta were allowed to walk on planes in Portland, Me., with prohibited weapons. I want somebody to tell me why that happened.”
The 14 settlements came a few days after the families won a ruling in Federal District Court in Manhattan that would have allowed a jury to hear a few minutes of a cockpit recording that captured the sounds of passengers trying to retake control of United Airlines Flight 93 before it crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.
Donald Migliori, a lawyer whose firm was involved in negotiating all of the settlements, said yesterday that Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein’s ruling on the recording last week had moved settlement talks forward. He said it became clear that jurors would hear evidence that passengers were aware the plane had been hijacked and had reacted heroically.
“It was a clear indication of where the case was going,” Mr. Migliori said. “The recording showed they were conscious and aware of the plane being hijacked and the last five minutes of struggle, heroism and flight.”
All of the latest settlements involved United Airlines and the two security companies, Argenbright and Huntleigh. Six of them involved Flight 93, which crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pa., as passengers stormed the cockpit. The eight other cases involved United Flight 175, which hit the south tower.
Only 21 cases now remain of the original 95 cases filed on behalf of 96 victims in federal court, lawyers said. The rest have been settled or dismissed.
The rush of settlements leaves open the question of whether any trials will take place. The settlements also force the remaining families to grapple with their motivations in suing and whether they are willing to continue waiting for trial.
Several of the families have said in interviews that their motives were not just economic. They have said that they wanted accountability from those they considered responsible for the attacks — including the two airlines; the airport security companies; Boeing, which manufactured the aircraft; and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owned the World Trade Center.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said it was common for settlements to mount as the pressure of a trial approached. But he predicted some holdouts.
“I think the dynamics here may be different from what I would call more garden variety kind of tort litigation,” he said. “It doesn’t seem this is entirely driven by money, though it may be for some people. People want to tell their stories and want to find out as much as they can in court.”
Mr. Migliori, whose firm, Motley Rice, is counsel or co-counsel in the remaining 21 cases, said he expected that some families, especially those who had relatives who died in the planes that struck the twin towers, would insist on a trial.
The terms of the settlements were sealed. But Mr. Migliori said the families felt vindicated. He said they “had reached a point where they were satisfied that the mix of their motivations — from compensation to accountability, to answers — was satisfied.”
Joseph Wayland, a lawyer for the defendants, did not return a call for comment.
The latest round of settlements included the case of Patrick Driscoll, 70, of Carmel, N.Y., a retired research director at Bell Communications who was on Flight 93. His case was scheduled to become the first to go to trial on Monday. In a statement after the settlement, Mr. Driscoll’s widow, Adelaide, said that documents uncovered during the investigation before trial had “helped to expose aviation security weakness.” She did not elaborate.
The first trial is now scheduled to begin Nov. 5, in the case of Dr. Paul Ambrose, a passenger on American Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon. Dr. Ambrose, 32, was a physician and adviser to the office of the surgeon general. His parents have sued.
In order to sue, the families had to forgo a settlement from the federal September 11th Victim Compensation Fund of 2001. Many of the plaintiffs argued that the fund shortchanged certain classes of people — children, retired people and very high earners — and did not sufficiently account for the suffering of the victims and their families. The fund awarded an average of $2 million to the families of 2,880 people killed in the attacks.
“I think it’s fair to say that the folks that chose litigation knew they were going to get compensated whether they went into litigation or went into the fund,” Mr. Migliori said. “But uniformly it was understood and appreciated that the fund was not going to provide the same level of compensation as litigation.”
Mr. Migliori said the remaining 21 cases consist of one passenger on United Flight 93; 15 cases involving American Flight 77; three passengers killed on American Flight 11; and two passengers killed on United Flight 175.
The settlements seemed to vindicate Judge Hellerstein’s strategy in ordering trials to determine damages before a trial to determine liability, a reversal of the usual order. In a pretrial conference on Sept. 11, the sixth anniversary of the attacks, Judge Hellerstein tried to explain his strategy. He said he did not want anyone to reduce the issue to money, and he expressed frustration that government resistance to releasing “sensitive security information” had delayed the preparation for a liability trial.
He urged the survivors to “choose life.”
“The alternative of giving in to the problems and delays and impasses in the world of sensitive security information is the way that I found unacceptable because, in many respects, it is a surrender to difficulty,” he said. “And so this may be a way, not a popular way, not a way free from criticism, but a way to get on.”