Former EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman cannot be held liable for telling residents near the World Trade Center site that the air was safe to breathe after the 2001 terrorist attacks, a federal appeals court said Tuesday.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Whitman's comments reassuring people about the safety around the site apparently were based on conflicting information and reassurances by the White House.
The appeals court said legal remedies are not always available for every instance of arguably deficient governmental performance.
It said nothing in the lawsuit "alleges that any defendant intended to injure anyone" and noted that Congress established a special fund after the attacks to provide damages to people who were injured.
A Department of Justice lawyer had argued late last year that holding the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency liable would set a dangerous precedent in future disasters because public officials would fear making public statements.
The ruling came in response to a lawsuit by residents, students and workers in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn who said they were exposed to hazardous dust and debris from the fallen twin towers after Sept. 11.
The plaintiffs alleged that Whitman and EPA officials acting on her behalf made statements about air quality that failed to report or misrepresented health risks associated with the dust from the ruined skyscrapers.
They said Whitman, who also is a former New Jersey governor, should be forced to pay damages to properly clean homes, schools and businesses.
A lower court judge had earlier refused to dismiss Whitman as a defendant, saying her actions were "conscience-shocking."
Yusill Scribner, a spokeswoman for government lawyers, said there was no comment on the decision. A lawyer who argued before the appeals court for the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment.