Feinberg commends lawyers for helping Sept. 11 victims' families

Issue April 2005 By Krista Zanin

Photo by David Gordon
Kenneth Feinberg, Special Master to the Federal September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, called the fund among the best examples of American generosity and compassion.
Because of lawyers, perhaps one of the country's greatest examples of compassion and generosity came to be in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Kenneth Feinberg, Special Master to the Federal September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, credited attorneys for creating the $7 billion fund and then working for free to represent the families of the victims killed and injured during the tragedies.

"The program was an unbelievable success because of the profession," said Feinberg, who delivered the keynote address during the Access to Justice Awards Luncheon on March 4. "During these times when lawyer jokes (are abundant), this September 11 fund is the perfect, perfect poster child for what the profession does in the public interest for our society."

The annual lunch offers attorneys an opportunity to see the fine work of their colleagues. This year, the luncheon recognized the following individuals for the following awards: Mary Monica Miner, Legal Services Award; Holland & Knight, LLP, Pro Bono Award for Law Firms; Denise Squillante, Pro Bono Publico Award; Anthony C. Bonavita, Defender Award; Adrienne C. Lynch, Prosecutor Award; and Steven L. Wollman, MBF Great Friend of Justice.

Feinberg, an MBA member, said he was honored to attend the lunch because of his fellow members of the association, including Leo V. Boyle, who he credited as being the leader behind the victim compensation fund.

Boyle, a past MBA president who on Sept. 11 was president of the American Trial Lawyers Association, was instrumental in getting the fund created and established by Congress. Under Boyle's leadership, ATLA established Trial Lawyers Care, which paired victims' families with attorneys, who represented them for free.

"There wouldn't have been a fund without Leo Boyle," said Feinberg.

Yet Boyle, who introduced Feinberg, credited him for the success of the fund and for bringing "the spirit and meaning of the fund to life."

"When history looks back on Sept. 11, it will judge that no human being did as much as Ken Feinberg to start and nurture this nation's healing from that horrific day," Boyle said. "No president, no senator, no mayor, no one can hold a candle to the difference that this remarkable man made. This nation is forever in his debt."

Approximately 1,600 families participated in the program, with only 86 opting to sue. Feinberg said his greatest disappointment as special master was not convincing six to eight families to make claims. Feinberg met with the mother of one young man killed in the World Trade Center and asked her if she wanted to fill out the application form. She refused, even after being told he could provide help to her in filling out the form. Had she signed the form, she would have been entitled to approximately $2 million.

"I never fully appreciated what clinical depression can do to people," Feinberg said.

Feinberg spoke of several issues that were difficult and challenging, including the toughest aspect of determining the value of an individual's life. In addition, it was heart wrenching attempting to calculate the pain and suffering so many families were experiencing for their losses, such as whether a spouse of 35 years should receive more than someone married just six months. He created a solution by giving families $250,000 for non-economic loss with an additional $100,000 going to spouses and/or dependents.

When they came to see him, families brought to Feinberg photos, trophies, certificates and videos of their loved ones. He watched wedding videos and listened to tape recordings of the victims as they left their final goodbyes in tape recordings just after the World Trade Center towers were hit.

"It wasn't all about the money," Feinberg said. "It was an opportunity to memorialize a lost loved one and so we would listen, we would listen to the families."

And then there are situations Feinberg still continues to think about, such as a grieving mother of three who lost her husband in the attacks. Shortly after the woman came to him, he heard from another lawyer who told him that the man had two children by another woman. He didn't know whether he should tell the wife about these two other children, but ultimately decided not to after giving compensation for each of the man's five children.

"I'm not sure we did the right thing," Feinberg said. "We did what we thought would be the best. She has her memories of her husband and let's leave it at that."

Feinberg said he spent his years as special master being the point man for a lot of heat and now he is receiving the benefit of a fair amount of praise for the work he did.

Still, he hailed the hundreds of lawyers who freely devoted their time to represent the victims' families.

"Our profession gets criticized, sometimes with merit," Feinberg said. "Like any profession, there is room for improvement. But if anybody wants to see what our profession did to promote the public interest, they should take a look at the fund … We will be forever in debt to the fellow lawyers who represented the families in this fashion."