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Judge and Special Masters of 9/11 First Responder Litigation Share “Perspectives from the Bench”

“Everything that happened was done in a fish bowl,” the Hon. Alvin Hellerstein said of the lawsuit brought against the City of New York by first responders who labored at Ground Zero after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Hellerstein, the United States District Judge who oversaw the seven-year litigation, was speaking before a lunch audience in the Saperston Student Lounge on December 1. The panel, “9/11 First Responder Litigation: Perspectives from the Bench,” also included Aaron Twerski, the Irwin and Jill Cohen Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, and James A. Henderson Jr., the Frank B. Ingersoll Professor of Law at Cornell. Twerski and Henderson served as special masters during the litigation.

Throughout a wide-ranging discussion, the panelists explained some of the innovative techniques they used to guide the litigation and reach the $712 million settlement between approximately 10,000 rescue and clean-up workers and the city. Speaking of the sophisticated database the court developed to analyze suits and select cases for early trial, Henderson said, “we were finally in control of the facts and could determine what was happening (and had happened) from almost any angle… it blew our socks off.”  

The panelists touched also on the urgency of expeditiously and fairly resolving cases that involve so many injured people. Twerski spoke of the need to prevent delays like the one that held up the first responder litigation in the Second Court of Appeals. Hellerstein, who caused a stir in March 2010 when he rejected an initial settlement as inadequate, said, “People were injured. They were seriously injured. People who used to run marathons couldn’t walk with their children… I felt they deserved compensation.”

The panel was presented by the Cornell Jewish Law Students Association (JLSA), a cultural, social, educational, and religious organization that reflects the varied interests of the Jewish student community of Cornell Law School.