A judge said Friday that thousands of emergency workers expected to claim they were harmed by World Trade Center dust after the Sept. 11 attack may have to share up to $1 billion, the amount he believes is the city's limit on liability.
US District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein indicated he might soon make a formal finding that the liability has a limit and appoint a special master to speed claims so that injured workers can recover money they need to cover their medical expenses.
At least 6,200 lawsuits have been filed by emergency workers. Hellerstein expects between 10,000 and 11,000 people who worked at the Trade Center site will file lawsuits.
The judge said he did not believe the workers can recover additional money from 150 private contractors who worked at the site because the city was ultimately responsible for the work conditions.
Hellerstein told more than 100 lawyers packed in his courtroom that the cap on damages would shorten litigation needs and speed payouts to those who need them.
Otherwise, he said, "we'll die and our children will die and our grandchildren will die before this litigation ends."
The judge said he wanted to lessen the work for lawyers because otherwise a greater proportion than necessary of the $1 billion will go to lawyers rather than victims.
Paul Joseph Napoli, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, first praised the judge's analysis but later said he believed insurance policies held by contractors could add another $500 million to the payouts.
James Tyrrell, a lawyer for the city and the contractors, said it would be "truly a breakthrough" if the plaintiffs agreed that the city's liability was limited to $1 billion.
"How would you respond?" the judge asked him.
"Positively," he answered.
The judge last month ruled that the city, its contractors and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the site, were only partially immune from lawsuits filed on behalf of workers who cleaned up the World Trade Center debris 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.