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New York Times

Sick Ground Zero Rescue Workers Can Sue City
Judge Refuses To Dismiss Thousands Of Lawsuits

By Brendan Keefe

A judge Tuesday refused to toss out the claims thousands of emergency workers who were sickened by World Trade Center dust brought against New York City and about 150 private contractors.

Retired NYPD Det. John Wolcott was the first Ground Zero rescuer to file a lawsuit against the city he once served.

"If we can help people to go get detected early, that's the key. I mean had a week to live. If I'd waited that one week, I wouldn't be here now," he said.

U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein refused to throw out Det. Walcott's lawsuit -- and those filed by more than 8,000 sickened recovery workers -- saying the city and its contractors are not immune from liability.

"I've heard the mayor say we're looking for a free lunch and so forth. You can't look for a free lunch when you have leukemia," Wolcott said.

Survivors' Attorney David Worby said, "You wanted there to be immunity. The court said no. Now do what's right. Take care of these people." He said his clients are "Heroes who've been victimized by terrible mistakes that were made in subjecting them to the worst toxic waste site in the history of our country."

Dozens of Davis Worby's clients will never see justice however -- 80 have already died from illnesses linked to 9/11.

The City Legal Department responded: "The complex decisions that were carefully and thoughtfully made during the months after 9/11 will demonstrate the enormous good work done by the City and its contractors, and the absence of any legal liabilities."

Judge Hellerstein dismissed claims against the Consolidated Edison Co. and companies controlled by developer Larry Silverstein, saying they did not have legal control over the area and therefore weren't liable for damages.

But Hellerstein said the city, its contractors, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey were only partially immune from lawsuits, with the precise scope and extent of the immunity varying according to date, place and activity.

Andrew J. Carboy, a lawyer for plaintiffs, called it "an important decision, a first step forward in the legal system for these other victims of 9-11."

Carboy, who represents 210 individuals, mostly firefighters, said Hellerstein's decision comes as the number of people making claims reaches as high as 8,000.

Michael A. Cardozo, the city's top lawyer, said a close study of the facts surrounding the claims will show an absence of any legal liabilities by the city and its contractors.

Hellerstein said he will appoint a special master to help eliminate claims that should not be pressed and to otherwise manage a case that is "likely to become unmanageable."

"If even a minority of the plaintiffs suffered serious injuries to their respiratory tracts arising from the acrid air of September 11, their claims deserve to be heard when a recovery could make a difference in their lives," the judge wrote.

He said the defendants also are entitled to resolution at the earliest possible point.

"The scar to the public interest needs to be cleansed, speedily, in good time," he said.

The city and its contractors are trying to avoid damages in lawsuits filed on behalf of workers who cleaned up the World Trade Center site for months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The lawsuits claimed the city and its contractors were negligent in monitoring the air and assuring appropriate safety in the workplace, particularly adequate respiratory equipment.

The judge noted that a study released in September by doctors at the Mount Sinai Medical Center showed that approximately 70 percent of the 10,000 workers who were tested reported that they suffer from new or substantially increased respiratory problems since 9/11.

"The workers at the site were presented with a dangerous environment, below and surrounding their work activities, threatening their health and safety," the judge said.