Families settle 9/11 suit

The Baltimore Sun

More than six years after their loved ones died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon, four Maryland families have reached a settlement with an airline and several corporations that they accused of "dangerous long-standing flaws" in security procedures, a lawyer representing the families said yesterday.

The families - along with two women who were injured at the Pentagon, and relatives of a woman killed at the World Trade Center - settled in a case that lawyers say was intended to shed light on airport security lapses.

"Our clients wanted those who were responsible to be held accountable," said Keith Franz, a Towson-based lawyer who represented the families. "They wanted answers as to why these events happened and how their loved ones died."

In order to pursue the lawsuit, the plaintiffs refused money from the Victim Compensation Fund, which was created by Congress to protect airlines from a barrage of litigation after the attacks.

"I felt like I was being lumped with everyone else by going with the fund," said Christine K. Fisher of Potomac, whose husband, Gerald "Geep" Fisher, a Booz Allen Hamilton employee, was killed in the Pentagon. "We wanted answers that were not being provided."

Fisher said that she and her stepchildren believed that the money they would have received from the fund would have been diminished by her husband's age - he was 57 - and the fact that he had life insurance.

"We felt that were we being unfairly penalized because he had planned ahead for the future," Fisher said.

Fisher and the other victims filed a lawsuit in 2003 charging American Airlines, the aircraft maker Boeing and Argenbright Security Inc., a contractor responsible for screening passengers on the hijacked flights, with negligence.

The amount of the financial settlement was confidential, said Franz, but he described it as "substantial." "The families feel completely vindicated by their decision," he said.

The settlement must be approved by U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein of the Southern District of New York, Franz said.

Franz is to be joined by Fisher and relatives of another victim at a news conference at the National Press Club this afternoon to announce the agreement.

Nearly 100 victims or their families decided to forgo compensation from the national fund to pursue litigation, Franz said, adding that fewer than 20 of those cases are still pending.

The lawsuit held corporations to a greater level of accountability than government-sponsored investigations into the attacks, he said.

"The 9/11 report judged the government response to 9/11 and was geared to improving our system of intelligence and how the government could take greater responsibility, but it was the lawsuit that dealt with the corporations," Franz said. "We believe that our exposing flaws in the system has made these corporations change their policies and establish a greater level of vigilance."

Franz said that his firm and other law firms interviewed about 80 airline employees - from top officials to baggage checkers - to determine how the hijackers were able to slip through security.

"We have the one piece of evidence that is indisputable, and that is [the video of] the passengers and the hijackers going through the security checkpoint at Dulles," he said. "It is clear that they did not even abide by their own procedures in dealing with people that set off the metal detectors on two occasions."

Security tapes also show a hijacker being checked with a metal-detecting wand, he said. Although the airport worker did not determine what was causing the metal detector to beep, the man was still waved through, Franz said.

Franz said pending litigation prevented him from discussing many of the specific security lapses.

A spokeswoman for American Airlines did not return a phone message seeking comment about the settlement.

Bound for Los Angeles, American Airlines Flight 77 took off from Washington Dulles International Airport and crashed into the west side of the Pentagon not long after two other hijacked jets struck the World Trade Center towers in New York. The crash at the Pentagon killed 184 people.

The Victim Compensation Fund was created by Congress and signed into law by the president 11 days after the attacks.

Plans for the fund were included in legislation that provided billions of dollars in financial assistance to the airline industry in the wake of the attacks and that shielded the airlines from lawsuits that could have caused their collapse.

The law created the fund as an alternative to litigation for the families of people killed or injured in the terrorist attacks.

Over the course of 33 months, the fund distributed $7 billion to survivors of the 2,880 people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks and to 2,680 individuals injured in the attacks or the ensuing rescue efforts, according to the U.S. Justice Department's final report on the compensation fund.

Relatives of those killed received an average of more than $2 million, according to the report, while the average award for injured victims was nearly $400,000. But because Congress required that the compensation factor in a person's age, occupation, life insurance policies and other individual circumstances, the payments varied widely.

The awards paid to the families of deceased victims ranged from $250,000 to $7.1 million. Similarly, the payments distributed to people injured in the attacks ranged from $500 to $8.6 million, according to the report.

In addition, 97 percent of the families of those killed in the attacks received money from the compensation fund rather than pursuing a lawsuit, according to the final report, which was released in November 2004.julie.scharper@baltsun.com jennifer.mcmenamin@ baltsun.com

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