Bottom Line for Families of 9/11 Passengers Going to Court
What’s the bottom line? When we’re talking about lawsuits, that’s usually the big question, the deal-breaker that either ceases all conversation or sets people abuzz.
Today in the NY Times there’s an article on the lawsuits filed by 41 different families on behalf of their loved ones who died on 9/11. (Read it here) The lawsuits—against various defendants including United and American Airlines, the airport security operations, and Boeing—are brought by those who found the amount offered under the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund to be so low it was insulting.
These were the families of people without spouses, dependants, and high paying jobs—retired people, children, and singles, for example—who would be compensated the least under the Fund because of their earning potential and family status. Other rules under the Victim Compensation Fund, like deducting existing life insurance payments from the total compensation given by the Fund, meant that some families were compensated $250,000 while others received $7.1 million. The average compensation was $2 million.
Clinging to their loved one’s trinkets that survived the crash, these families also hold on to grief and a desire for the truth about what happened and whether anything could have prevented it. But to get there, they must also deal with the bottom line. One judge has ordered six trials to determine damages to take place before the trials on liability. This may encourage settlement and reduce the number of cases that make it to trial.
It feels, to say the least, odd... putting a money value on human life; or talking about the victims and their families in a way that goes straight to the dollar first, and then gets into the more personal details about who the person was; or seeking the bottom line to encourage settlement rather than arrival at the answers through the court process. According to the Times article, the plaintiffs in these cases express the same mixed emotions.
On the one hand is the desire to find truth, to determine whether or not something should have been done—whether the airport security should have been more vigilant, whether the airlines could have known and prevented the disaster, whether anyone, besides the terrorists, contributed to the event by failing to take action or by taking the wrong actions. On the other hand there’s the sting of seeing the monetary value assigned to the life of one’s beloved. In the case of the September 11th Fund, added to this sting is the hurt of knowing that this assessment is based on cold calculations of income and marital status.
The Times article lends attention to one reason people sue--namely, the search for answers. It highlights three groups of loved ones related to 9/11 victims: the father of a 28 year-old flight attendant, the son of a 72-year-old woman passenger, and the parents of an eleven-year-old passenger who aspired to be a doctor.
Each family believes they would have been under-compensated through the September 11th Fund, and find it inequitable that their loved ones would be compensated so much less than others because they were not pilots or surgeons with kids and a partner. But just as important, they also believe that lapses in airport security and other oversights contributed to the event, and that there has been too much secrecy about what happened on September 11th and what could have been done to prevent it. So, they are seeking answers. While this question—what could have been done differently—is something almost everyone who loses a loved one asks, these families believe that through the courts they might actually arrive at an answer. And to them, that seems to be the bottom line that really matters.