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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Court and Insurer Leave 9/11 Survivor in the Cold

MANHATTAN (CN) - A former commodities trader severely traumatized by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks - which killed 21 of his colleagues - cannot collect disability benefits because he missed the deadline to appeal his denial, a federal judge ruled.

U.S. District Judge Andrew Carter offered sympathy but no relief to New Jersey resident Joseph Viti in his lawsuit against Guardian Life Insurance of America, which has refused coverage after he developed debilitating agoraphobia and anxiety.

"The Court emphasizes however, that this opinion is in no way meant to minimize Viti's suffering," Judge Carter wrote in a 10-page opinion. "Sitting in the Southern District, this Court is all too aware of the devastating effects the September 11th attacks have had on countless families."

Roughly four years after the attacks, Viti started missing a couple of days of work a week, making it as far as the door or his car before finding he could move no further, according to his federal complaint.

"He then just about stayed in bed for the next 8 months or was curled up in a fetal position just rocking back and forth in the corner of his room and crying," the complaint states.

Whereas his profession always had required him to have "substantial mathematical skills, an excellent transactional memory, an understanding of market conditions and nerves of steel," Viti's symptoms caused him to be disturbed by common background noises like hearing sirens, thunderstorms and garbage trucks, according to his complaint.

"The trauma of what he had seen changed him; he became severely agoraphobic, grew withdrawn from his family, and would cry frequently and unexplainably," Judge Carter wrote. "Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder and applied for disability benefits under the plan."

When Guardian Life Insurance Company of America turned him down in 2006, Viti says he stuffed the letter into his desk unopened, and his wife discovered it after the deadline to contest the denial had passed.

For the federal judge and his magistrate, Viti's "refusal to open the letter" reflected a lack of "reasonable diligence," and his wife's failure to notice it earlier in their shared drawer was "inexcusable," according to the opinion.

The extent of Viti's suffering is apparently uncontested.

"Not even Guardian questions the tragic difficulties with which Viti and his family must now live," Judge Carter wrote. "Despite the court's sympathy for the obvious trauma he has suffered, Viti has not presented sufficient evidence to warrant any legal relief for the first two counts of the amended complaint."

Judge Colleen McMahon, the prior judge who presided over the case, already dismissed two of the other counts, leaving only one count of breach of fiduciary duty remaining.

The attorney for Joseph Viti declined to comment on the decision. The attorney for the insurer did not immediately return telephone requests for comment.

The parties will meet to litigate the final claim on the morning of Jan. 15.

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