MANHATTAN (CN) - A federal judge rejected the more than half-billion-dollar settlement offer for first responders made ill by working at the World Trade Centers site, saying it did not provide victims enough money and was too complicated for them to understand.
U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein also questioned the amount of attorneys' fees, and said that money should not come from the victims, but from an insurance fund.
Hellerstein, who presided over all 9/11-related litigation, rejected the settlement that would have provided the plaintiffs with $575 million to $657 million.
"In my judgment, this settlement is not enough," Judge Hellerstein announced during a hearing on Friday.
Hellerstein said the 10,000 plaintiffs, who include police officers, firefighters and laborers, were being pushed into an agreement that few of them understood.
The 95-page settlement offer laid out a complicated four-tier point system for victims, with the severity of their injuries determining the amount they would receive.
Tier 1 included people whose only alleged injury is fear that they may become sick. The other three tiers were to be determined by the severity of various ailments, including as cancer, lung disease, heart conditions, asthma, laryngitis/pharyngitis, chronic rhinosinusitis, upper digestive injuries, sleep disorders and death.
The plaintiffs had only 90 days to decide whether to accept the deal that was years in the making.
Ninety-five percent had to vote to yes for it to pass.
The settlement called for attorneys to receive more than one-third of the money and would have required workers to pay their own attorney fees.
Judge Hellerstein rejected that.
He said all of the money should come from the WTC Captive Insurance Co., an entity created with $1 billion of federal money to represent New York City in the proceedings.
Hellerstein decided workers should have more time and opportunity to ask questions and learn details about the settlement, the Associated Press reported. He even offered to go on a mini-speaking tour.
"I will make myself available in union halls, fire department houses, police precincts and schools," the judge said.
The agreement set aside $57 million in a "permanent disability fund" and $23 million for rescuers who develop cancer in the future.
Hellerstein said this wasn't enough money for people seriously sickened by Ground Zero toxins, and that he wanted to retain control over which workers were entitled to have claims paid.
"This is no ego trip for me. This is work," he said.
Hellerstein said presiding over the Sept. 11 lawsuits has been "the greatest burden of my life."
When the 110-story Twin Towers collapsed after the terrorist attack, workers who responded faced more than 1 million tons of debris nearly 12 stories high, according to a U.S. Homeland Security Inspector General report.
They toiled near fires that smoldered for almost 3 months and worked through layers of asbestos-laden dust, pulverized concrete, glass fibers and other hazardous materials.
The plaintiffs represent workers and volunteers at Ground Zero and those exposed to debris as it was transported to loading and unloading areas, transfer stations and piers.
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