Ashes to assets

Posted: May 31, 2003 12:00 AM

This much is clear: Among the casualties of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, you won't find the Spirit of Greed.

Within days of the attacks, Congress created a Victim Compensation Fund to compensate victims' families, while discouraging them from suing airlines, airports or other potential litigation targets. The intent was both compassionate -- in providing money to the injured and to grieving families who had lost their loved ones' income -- and savvy, as Washington wanted to minimize the damage to the other Al Qaeda target: the U.S. economy.

Guess what? This week, the fund announced that, while the average payout to each victim's family is $1.4 million and the highest award amounted to $6 million, nearly half of the estimated 3,000 victims' families have not applied for compensation.

Fund administrator Kenneth Feinberg told The Associated Press that the number of filings is low -- despite a final application date of Dec. 22, 2003 -- because some families are still grieving, some are procrastinating and others are watching how cases are handled so they'll know how to get a larger payout.

There are two other factors, however, at play.

One is that some family members want to sue the airlines and airport security, and those responsible for the World Trade Center -- and they're willing to forfeit the fund money to make their point to corporate America.

I think those who want to sue are wrong. They're delivering the sort of blow to key U.S. industries that the terrorists had hoped for, as they fault companies for not having secured their loved ones against terrorist attacks.

Cathy Ashton of Queens, the mother of a victim, told the New York Daily News that she knew she was "throwing away a sure million dollars by suing," but "we really want to hold those people accountable."

The other, alas, is greed.

Earlier this month, a federal judge threw out a lawsuit that claimed the fund discriminates against America's top 2 percent of income earners. One plaintiff, Victor Colaio, told The Associated Press that $5 million or $6 million may not be enough, because his son, who died in the World Trade Center attacks, would have earned much more had he lived: "Our son was making quite a bit of money, in the millions, and to give him only less than a year's salary, that doesn't feel right."

"Give him?" The son is dead.

"Doesn't feel right?"

What can feel right about awarding different amounts of money to compensate for people who were murdered? Civil courts can only do so much -- such as indemnify economic losses -- and that benefits high-income earners. Congress adopted compensation formulas similar to those used in airline settlements. Yet now families of richies say it's not enough.

And if Colaio thinks $5 million doesn't "feel right," how about: A bond trader's spouse gets more than the widow of the firefighter who died trying to save the trader.

Or: An executive's parent stands to reap more from the government than the mother of three whose U.S. Marine husband died in Iraq.

Or: There are Americans willing to burn federal dollars in a quest to squeeze a few extra million from Uncle Sam, while the families of military reservists, who are risking their lives in the Persian Gulf, struggle to get by on military pay.