Shortly after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Association of Trial Lawyers of American (ATLA) Past-president Leo V. Boyle said, "If a fireman can run back into the building and die to rescue people he doesn't even know, the least I can do is represent his children for free."
To accomplish this goal, ATLA launched a program called "Trial Lawyers Care." This is the largest private pro bono effort ever organized by a group in this country. Hundreds of trial lawyers across the country have been volunteering their time and service to give free legal services to the injured and the families of the victims who are entitled to compensation from the Victim Compensation Fund established by Congress as part of a plan to limit the liability of the airlines.
While they can't make the pain and suffering of that day go away, the lawyers who agree to represent the victims and survivors provide some solace to these families by helping them to achieve some economic relief.
Several of these lawyers are from this area. Benjamin W. Glass of Benjamin W. Glass III & Associates in Fairfax, handled the case of an injured Army librarian from the Pentagon.
"This was a lady who had minor second-degree burns to her hands and face," said Glass. "She was present at the scene of the explosion."
Glass helped her fill out the application forms and file the necessary papers, including doctor's bills. As in all victim fund cases, the administrators came up with a figure they deemed appropriate. The client, in this case, accepted the figure.
"She was very appreciative of the government and of the people who helped her," said Glass.
Gerald Schwartz, head of Law Offices of Gerald A. Schwartz in Alexandria, also volunteered to take two injury cases as part of Trial Lawyers Care. Schwartz's cases are more involved than Glass' client's case was. Schwartz is concerned because the amount calculated for all the Victim Compensation Fund cases are determined by physical injury; they do not take any emotional damage into account.
He believes that one of his clients has an existing neurological disorder that was aggravated by the events of 9-11.
For that client, he is going to ask a neurologist to evaluate the case. He will submit this evaluation, along with the application and appropriate doctor and hospital bills. If he and his client are not satisfied with the amount awarded by the fund, then they have the option to ask for a hearing. At this hearing, other evidence can be brought forth.
The law firm, Blankingship & Keith, P.C., which is based in Fairfax, is also handling some of the victim fund cases. One of their attorneys, Leah Garcia, is handling a brain injury case from the Pentagon and is in the process of preparing the application with the client.
WHILE THE ABOVE four cases illustrate how the fund handles injuries, most of the cases deal with the surviving members of someone who was killed at the Pentagon, the World Trade Center or in from the plane crash in Pennsylvania. These families can apply for an award, and based on a calculation of lost revenue, will recover anywhere from $250,000 to several million dollars.
The formula determining the award has three elements. First, $250,000 is awarded for the death of the victim; then $100,000 is awarded for the surviving spouse and each child. Finally, a calculation is made to project the income the victim would have earned over their working life. Money that has already been paid out to the victims, such as life insurance and workmen‚s compensation payments, are considered set-offs and are then subtracted from the total amount awarded.
Robert Stoney, who's also with Blankingship & Keith, P.C., handled a death claim from the World Trade Center; that case has been submitted and they are waiting for the disbursement of the presumed award.
This case involved Shakila Yasmin, a young woman from Bangladesh, who worked for Marsh McLennan on the 97th floor of one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Both she and her husband, Nural Miah, died simultaneously on 9-11. Stoney handled the case for Yasmin's parents, who live in Virginia, and who were dependent on Yasmin and her husband.
As part of the application, Stoney included a statement which read in part: ". . . As a teenager, she had escaped war-torn Bangladesh with her family seeking a safer, more secure life in America -- Shakila lived America's promise. And she was a devout Muslim whose life was ironically cut short by zealots who hijacked her religion as well as a plane Shakila died in America's tragedy."
Thomas Curcio, partner with Dunn, Curcio & Keating, in Old Town, Alexandria, is handling three death cases. The first one involved the wife of a Special Forces major in the Army. Her application was filed based on projected lifetime earnings.
"This was a straight-forward award process, but the distribution process took awhile," said Curcio.
The client in this case was satisfied with the amount that was awarded, so there was no need for a hearing.
Curcio also recently filed an application for Gloria Calderon, widow of Jose Calderon. He went one step further than the standard application, in that he used Economist Thomas Borzilleri, Ph.D.'s voluntary services to project and analyze the value of the services provided by the husband. Borzilleri also calculated the earning potential of Calderon's husband in a civilian position after his retirement from the military; the fund's calculation only provides for income earned through retirement.
"He [Curcio] has been helping me so much," she said. "It's so complicated — they have to figure out my age, my husband's age, my children's age and my husband's rank.‰"
While Calderon speaks some English, she is currently taking advanced English classes and is thankful that she had somebody to help her. She's already received a partial payment and should be hearing soon what the calculated award is. If Calderon is not satisfied with the payment, then Curcio can request a hearing on her behalf.
TWO YEARS LATER, it's still difficult for Gloria Calderon to believe that her husband is gone.
"He was a young guy and had a lot of plans. He loved the children," she said.
The third case Curcio is handling hasn't been filed yet. He plans to do the same thing he did for Calderon, using a CPA to project value of the husband's services and his earning potential after retirement. The deadline for filing is December 22, 2003.
Victims who choose to apply to the fund must agree not to sue airlines or other entities. Lawyers handling the cases must sign a disclaimer saying that they won't represent the client should they choose legal action.
A federal judge's ruling this week in New York that airlines did have a duty to anticipate and guard against deliberate, suicidal airline crashes may cause some victims who haven't yet applied to the fund to choose legal action instead. There is no guarantee that these suits will be won, and Curcio will continue to recommend that his clients opt to make a claim against the fund, rather than pursuing litigation.
Editor's Note: Tom Curcio, who was interviewed for this story, is the husband of Gazette writer Gale Curcio.