updated 11/24/2010 4:53:03 PM ET 2010-11-24T21:53:03

A federal judge overseeing a major legal settlement for thousands of ground zero workers who were exposed to World Trade Center dust said Wednesday that he would give a handful of holdouts one last chance to take the deal.

More than 95 percent of the 10,000 police officers, firefighters and construction workers who sued New York City over health problems they suspect were caused by the tons of dust and ash released in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have joined a settlement that will pay at least $625 million. When the deadline to take the deal expired last week, 520 plaintiffs had rejected the offer or failed to respond.

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U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein said just days ago that there would be no further extension of the deadline, but he relaxed that position after getting an analysis suggesting that some of the holdouts had stopped talking to their lawyers.

Of the 520 who failed to join the settlement, 93 could not be located by their attorneys, "despite diligent efforts," the judge wrote. Among the rest, 135 plaintiffs "have declined to communicate with their counsel" for unexplained reasons.

Ordinarily, people who stop actively pursuing their cases have their lawsuits thrown out, but Hellerstein said he wanted to make sure they weren't giving up simply because they had become disillusioned with their attorneys.

"It is not surprising that a relatively small number of eligible plaintiffs have become frustrated by the litigation and settlement processes and have made themselves difficult to locate, unwilling to communicate, and desirous of quitting," he said.

The judge appointed a special counsel to offer free legal advice to any eligible plaintiff who missed the deadline. The outreach effort expires Dec. 17.

Lawyers on both sides of the case have agreed to keep the settlement open for a little while longer to make sure any stragglers who did wish to join were included.

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