9-11 VICTIM FAMILIES BATTLING FOR JUSTICE
Ellen Mariani Back in Court to Find Out Whether Judge Will Hear Her 9-11 Case
By Jerry Mazza
On June 14, in Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein’s spacious courtroom atop the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse at 500 Pearl Street in New York, a true David-versus-Goliath story played out. It involved a case that is being brought by the remaining plaintiffs who did not take the 9-11 Victim Compensation money following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Lawyers from United Air Lines, American Airlines, Boeing Corporation, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and World Trade Center Properties filled half the paneled courtroom. A packed gallery filled the other half. Among these attorneys was a smaller number of lawyers for the plaintiffs who did not take the government’s handout.
Eligibility for the Victim Compensation Fund required victims’ “physical harm or death” as a result of one of the crashes, or being the personal representative of a deceased victim. But the hook was the waiver of a claimant’s right to file a lawsuit if he or she filed for fund money.
The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund of 2001 (VCF) was the last part of the three-part Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act of 2001 issued at President Bush’s order. It was issued only 12 days after the tragedy and most probably not closely read by most members of Congress who passed it. The commercial airlines received a $15 billion subsidy to keep them from going under.
If victims or survivors decided not to take the money, the law said they could file a lawsuit for damages. The man to evaluate all appeals was the fund’s special master, Kenneth R. Feinberg. He was appointed by then Attorney General John Ashcroft on Nov. 26, 2001. In his final report of fund activities, Feinberg said with no due modesty, “In my view, the fund was an unqualified success: 97 percent of the families of deceased victims who might otherwise have pursued lawsuits for years have received compensation. . . . In total, the fund distributed over $7.049 billion to survivors of 2,880 persons killed in the September 11 attacks and to 2,680 individuals who were injured in the attacks or in the rescue efforts conducted thereafter. The average award for families of victims killed in the attacks exceeded $2 million. The average award for injured victims was nearly $400,000. . . .” Bottom line: the airlines received over twice as much as 9-11 victims and their families.
Think of the consequences of an open trial of plaintiffs against the airlines and the government. Think of the discovery and of all the facts which could be used to prove those thousands of 9-11 deaths were murders, conceivably by domestic killers with foreign allies. The cost would be the heads of those in our government and their associates. Thus the $7 billion in Victim Fund’s payout was a small price to pay for the silence it produced.
But, after five-and-a-half years, not one single victim’s case from 9-11 has even been heard in a court of law—in spite of the fact that the United States is known as a litigious society with an abundance of aggressive lawyers.
Many thought the relatives of the 9-11 victims would go for justice and compensation in the courts. Not so, particularly under the pressure of the VCF.
In fact, the most notable would-be litigant, Ellen Mariani, has been harassed from the date of filing her original RICO suit against the Bush administration on Dec. 20, 2001. For speaking out tirelessly about the need for a trial, for an investigation and for discovery of the real facts, Mrs. Mariani has been so assailed that she was eventually replaced as administrator of her deceased husband’s estate.
Mrs. Mariani’s husband, Neil, was on Flight 175, which crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
With the help of the Greenberg-Traurig law firm, the same firm that served Bush in the 2000 election, Mrs. Mariani’s stepdaughter, Lauren Peters, was put in Mrs. Mariani’s place as the estate administrator. Lauren Peters’s name also replaced Mrs. Mariani’s on the latter’s landmark suit against United Airlines.
Today, the gutsy Mrs. Mariani remains a co-beneficiary of the yet-to-be-paid fund, a widow living on Social Security and under a gag order, which the government has violated with continual harassment.
The case has been rife with intrigue and odd circumstances with many of those involved on the side of the government and the corporations maintaining long-standing connections to Israel.
On June 14, the polished voices of United Airlines, American Airlines, Boeing, and the rest of the court did a legal dance to avoid culpability via litigation from plaintiffs. At one point, the lawyer for the plaintiffs stood up to speak, reminding Hellerstein that Congress created the VCF and then asked victims’ families to relinquish the right to bring a lawsuit against the airlines and the government in return for compensation. The lawyer wondered aloud why Congress would ask that of the families and if it was an unfair exchange. Reality entered the discussion. After that, two of the court clerks asked to speak with Hellerstein in his chambers.
When Hellerstein returned, he said that the plaintiffs would have a trial, but it would be bifurcated, that is, split in half. The liability cases would be conducted with the airlines and only the damages cases would be heard in court.
Hellerstein added that he would name three cases for the remaining damages suits to be “tried.” The judge reserved the right to decide which cases to try. “I want to settle as many cases as I can as soon as I can,” he said. “That is my job.”
Jerry Mazza is a writer in NY. This article first appeared in the Online Journal.
(Issue #28, July 9, 2007)