As the first cases in a massive battle over illnesses linked to Sept. 11, 2001 near trial, an Associated Press investigation has found that several of the initial 30 suits contain inconsistent or exaggerated claims about how the workers got sick or how much time they spent at ground zero.
One demolition worker who said he developed health problems after toiling for six months in the toxic ruins of the World Trade Center has actually been severely ill since the 1990s. In a previous medical malpractice case, he said he was so sick between 2000 and 2003 that he couldn't work regularly. He never mentioned Sept. 11 during his testimony in that lawsuit.
Lawyers for a police officer from northern New Jersey who died in 2006 claimed in a court filing that he spent nearly 300 days handling debris at ground zero, but his work records indicate that his actual time and duties related to Sept. 11 were far more limited. During the months the lawyers said the man worked at ground zero, he was recording full-time shifts in Cresskill, N.J.
Another police officer who was listed by her lawyers as having lung cancer, doesn't have cancer at all. Her actual illness involves something akin to chronic asthma. She insists her lawyers were mistaken.
The three cases are among the 30 plaintiffs whose suits are being considered for May trials over the city's culpability for chronic illnesses caused by exposure to contaminated dust in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
More than $1 billion at stake
Those cases are among the thousands filed over the health of ground zero workers, but they have an outsized importance.
Of the more than 9,000 legal claims filed against New York City, about 60 have gotten close scrutiny by the court. Of those, 30 are now being considered as candidates for trials in May. U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein, who is overseeing the case, says that group will ultimately be reduced to 12, for the first set of trials.
Hellerstein has said he hopes those initial trials will serve as a road map to settlements for the many other claims by rescue and recovery workers who say they got sick after the city failed to protect them from poisonous trade center ash. More than $1 billion in damages is at stake.
Lawyers for the workers whose cases were examined by the AP declined to discuss them, but said the trials will show unequivocally that workers exposed to the dust weren't given proper equipment, and as a result are now sick.
"These are cops and firemen and construction workers who were there for the city," said attorney David Worby, who would not answer specific questions about the cases uncovered by AP. "There is no question anymore about whether they were sick, and how sick they are. There are tens of thousands of people who are sick. Not all are severely ill, but many of them are."
The lead counsel for the plaintiffs, Paul Napoli, did not respond to several requests for information about Briganti, O'Loughlin, Sorrento or the others with health claims against the city.
Some plaintiffs have turned reluctant as the cases have moved forward. For example, one of the 30 asked out of the case completely, for unspecified personal reasons.
Clearly, some of the plaintiffs are gravely ill — or worse.
Firefighter Raymond Hauber died of esophageal cancer at age 47 after putting in at least 90 days on the smoking rubble pile.
Fire Lt. Martin Fullam needed a lung transplant after doctors diagnosed him with polymyositis, an autoimmune disease that led to pulmonary fibrosis.
Others claim a variety of illnesses, but a majority describe symptoms similar to asthma, with recurrent wheezing, shortness of breath and sinus problems.
There is growing scientific evidence that some people, maybe even thousands, were harmed by the air at ground zero.
Studies have shown elevated levels of sinus and lung problems among rescue and recovery workers. Of the people exposed to the dust, 1 in 10 developed asthma within six years of the attacks, about triple the national rate. Firefighters have experienced unusual levels of sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that affects the lungs.
Research has also shown that trade center responders suffer from high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and doctors have been investigating elevated levels of acid reflux disease.
Seeking health coverage
Some lawmakers have proposed legislation that would reopen the federal Sept. 11 victim compensation fund to cover people with health claims. They have asked for as much as $12 billion for the sick.
The legal team representing New York City and the contractors who carried out the debris removal effort have argued that many claims contain incorrect or exaggerated information.
Another defendant, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said in a court filing that many plaintiffs, in addition to detailing claims of dust-related ailments, also have listed everything wrong with their health, regardless of whether there is any link to exposure.
The detailed medical and work records needed to confirm victim illness were largely unavailable to the court last year when it selected the 30 candidates for early trial consideration.
Instead, it chose plaintiffs based on their responses to a 360-question survey about their health and work history, the results of which were compiled in a database and ranked by illness severity. Of the 30, a third were selected by the court, a third by the defense team and a third by the plaintiffs.
It is unclear which cases will make the cut when the pool is narrowed to 12.
Hellerstein has commented in his rulings on the difficulty of managing the case, which he noted involved plaintiffs with 387 diseases "ranging from the most life threatening to the merely irritating." He said on Jan. 21 that he would likely order all trial plaintiffs to undergo an independent medical evaluation.
Even having trials for only the most severely ill could mean hundreds of trials, but the judge rejected lumping them together as a class action because the plaintiffs were each exposed to different toxins under different circumstances.
Hellerstein also has pushed hard for a settlement that would avoid trials altogether. At a hearing Jan. 21 he said the two sides had been in intensive talks, although he noted that the negotiations had been complicated.