September 11 Lawsuits Still Moving Slowly Forward
By Gerri Elder
Five years after the tragic events of September 11, about 60 lawsuits are still slowly working their way through the legal system. The plaintiffs in these suits are victims' families who, in the wake of the attacks, opted not to accept federal compensation and pursued private lawsuits instead.
While these plaintiffs face the same accusations of greed and opportunism as many personal injury and negligence plaintiffs, they insist that their motivation has little or nothing to do with money. Their claims are credible in view of the sure money they declined when opting out of the $7 billion government distribution.
The time-consuming and emotionally draining litigation may end with no compensation at all to these families. Lawsuits have been stalled by the federal government's refusal to release aviation security information. In fact, the U.S. District Court has thus far refused to schedule a trial date, urging parties to settle their claims.
But a monetary settlement isn't what these suits are about, according to some plaintiffs and their injury lawyers. Carrie Lemack, whose mother, Judy Larocque, died on Flight 11, told the Boston Globe that the lawsuit was now and had always been about accountability. Likewise, Loretta Filipov, whose husband died on that same flight, told the Globe that her decision to file a lawsuit had never been about money, but about answers.
While the September 11 plaintiffs' may not get the answers they're looking for, their quest illustrates a commonly overlooked aspect of personal injury litigation. While the media talks about the few outrageous personal injury verdicts that make good news and the insurance company claims that personal injury litigation raises insurance rates and the cost of doing business for U.S. corporations, little attention is paid to the accountability and public safety aspects of personal injury litigation.
The concept that private litigation could benefit the public by holding "bad actors" accountable is a recognized and intended facet of the American justice system: so much so that courts have specifically sanctioned the role of civil plaintiffs as "private attorneys general".
The motivation of some personal injury plaintiffs may be purely noble-accountability and public safety-while others may simply be seeking just compensation for the losses they suffered at the hands of another. A few, undoubtedly, are hoping for a windfall. But the civil justice system is designed to provide just compensation, not lottery winnings, and when the occasional jury returns a verdict out of line with fair compensation or the message society needs to send to the defendant and its colleagues, judges and appellate courts nearly always reduce those verdicts.
The cost and publicity associated with the litigation, though, may give businesses cause to reconsider their own practices and make the world a little safer for consumers. At least, that's what the September 11 plaintiffs are hoping will occur within the transportation industry.