When articles are written about how the thousands of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks were compensated, there will be one interesting footnote: All but three claimants reached out-of-court settlements with the help of two Law School alumni—Sheila Birnbaum ’65 and Kenneth Feinberg ’70.
Feinberg, the Obama administration’s new “pay czar” overseeing executive compensation for companies receiving federal aid, was the special master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund established by Congress 10 days after the attacks as an administrative alternative to litigation. The vast majority—98 percent—of eligible victims and families submitted claims to the fund, and by June 2004 Feinberg had supervised payouts of more than $7 billion to 5,560 claimants.
The 95 remaining victims and families filed suits against the airlines, security companies, and others in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. That court, in turn, appointed Birnbaum, a specialist in mass torts and a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, as mediator. From February 2006 to March 2009, she settled all but three wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits for a total of $500 million.
In her concluding report to Judge Alvin Hellerstein, Birnbaum wrote that many families had not had a chance to “tell the story of their loss.” So, she arranged for the families to address airline representatives in face-to-face sessions that were “heartwrenching and emotionally draining.” In Hellerstein’s order accepting the report, he praised Birnbaum’s “extraordinary work”: “She absorbed their losses and their pain with empathy…. She gained plaintiffs’ confidence. Without her assistance, most of these cases, in my opinion, would not have settled.”
Read an interview with Kenneth Feinberg ’70 .
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