FRIDAY, JULY 16, 2004



By Mary Alexander


Trial lawyers often face criticism - even in the current presidential campaign, for example - but take a look at what the Association of Trial Lawyers of America did to encourage and assist families to apply to the Federal Sept. 11 Victims' Compensation Fund, rather than sue.

By the June 15 deadline to collect from the Fund, an astonishing 98 percent of the victims' families chose the no-suit strategy. Six billion dollars has been paid out from the fund for 2,963 death cases and 4,430 injury claims.

Trial Lawyers Care - a group of more than 1,100 trial lawyers volunteering  free help to the Sept. 11 victims and their families - represented over half of the 2,900 victims' families from the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania. ATLA's work was the largest pro-bono legal effort in U.S. history. Congressman John Conyers (D-MI), minority leader of the House Judiciary Committee, called these efforts an "extraordinary response to this extraordinary situation."

Already devastated by loss and  grief, the families of Sept. 11 victims faced drawn-out and uncertain litigation - especially, given that suits were considered against airline giants, security companies, foreign governments, hijackers and terrorist organizations, among others. Families would have waited years for resolution. Utilizing the victims' fund accelerated the process of economic compensation, justice and closure. It allowed for healing to begin.

Association of Trial Lawyers of America not only provided the pro-bono legal work, but conceived and helped to write the legislation in Congress that created the Sept. 11 victims fund itself. Immediately after the attacks, the airlines asked Congress to keep them from going belly-up to cover the damages. ATLA felt that, if the country were to protect the airlines from the financial impact of 9/11, it certainly should assist the individual victims (and their families). To leave the families out in the cold would have been the ultimate injustice.

Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle agreed. So did President Bush. On Sept. 21, 2001 - just 10 days after the attacks - in a remarkable spirit of bipartisan comity, Congress passed and the president signed into law the Victim Compensation Fund.

The action has had an impact right here in California.

San Leandro resident Alan Mennie's daughter, Melissa, 27, was an ensign in the Navy working in the Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into it. Derrill Bodley's 20-year-old daughter, Deora, a junior at Santa Clara University, was the youngest person on United Airlines Flight 93 - whose passengers learned of the attacks on the Twin Towers and then agreed they would not allow the plane to become a missile aimed at another crowded national symbol.

Both Melissa Mennie and Deora Bodley were just two of the heroes who died for their country. The greatest achievement of the Victims' Compensation Fund has been to honor them and help their families.

Trial lawyers often fight for consumers' rights, patients' health care, product safety, and pension protections from corporations that want to take them away. Yet I've never been more proud of lawyers, as a professional whole, than I've been due to their work for the victims of Sept. 11.  Despite early doubts, the Victims' Compensation Fund achieved its objective.          

Bureaucrats are sometimes criticized in the same way as trial lawyers, but the fund's special master, Kenneth Feinberg, worked tirelessly and efficiently to ensure its success.

The families, lawyers, airlines and all Americans affected by Sept. 11 should be satisfied by the collective effort launched by trial lawyers. The 98 percent of families compensated after the attacks are proof a fight for justice has been won. Trial lawyers do care.

Mary Alexander, a San Francisco-based consumer attorney, is chair of ATLA's national political action committee and former ATLA President.