NEW YORK – A federal judge on Friday rejected a legal settlement that would have given at least $575 million to people sickened by ash and dust from the World Trade Center, saying the deal shortchanged 10,000 ground zero workers whom he called heroes.
“In my judgment, this settlement is not enough,” said U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein, who delivered his pronouncement to a stunned gallery at a federal courthouse in Manhattan.
The 76-year-old jurist said he feared police officers, firefighters and other laborers who cleared rubble after the Sept. 11 terror attacks were being pushed into signing a deal few of them understood.
Under the terms of the settlement, workers had been given just 90 days to say yes or no to a deal that would have assigned them payments based on a point system that Hellerstein said was complicated enough to make a Talmudic scholar’s head spin.
“I will not preside over a settlement that is based on fear or ignorance,” he said.
Of the proposed settlement of $575 million to $657 million, workers stood to get amounts ranging from a few thousand dollars to more than $1 million.
Hellerstein said the deal should be richer. Too much of it would be eaten up by legal fees, he said.
A third or more of the money set aside for the workers was expected to go to their lawyers. Some plaintiffs had agreed at the start of the case to give as much as 40 percent of any judgment to cover fees and expenses. That might have meant $200 million or more going to attorneys.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the judge’s actions would kill the settlement entirely.
The deal had taken years to negotiate and was announced March 11, with about two months to go until the first trials.