By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Gregory Cannata was standing in a parking lot on Barclay Street at 9:03 a.m. on September 11, 2001, staring at the smoking North Tower of the World Trade Center a block away. He was wondering how a pilot could have accidentally crashed into the skyscraper when United Flight 175 roared up over the harbor and exploded into the South Tower.
"People were screaming and crying," he said. "Pieces of the plane dropped onto Church Street."
Cannata, a personal-injury lawyer, was so affected by the attacks that he volunteered his services in the following months, along with many other lawyers. He spent most of his time advising clean-up workers who believed they had been sickened by toxins around the World Trade Center site, but who were ineligible for money from the newly established 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund.
One morning in the shower, it occurred to Cannata that many of the workers had a cause of action under New York State labor law against the building managers and contractors who hired them.
That realization began a decade of work on behalf of the cleanup workers. Today Cannata is one of the lead lawyers for 1,500 plaintiffs in one of the last major September 11-related cases.
For Cannata, like many of the lawyers involved in September 11 litigation, the legal work cannot be separated from the emotional experiences of that day, and of the months and years after.
"It was a very traumatic thing for everyone," Cannata said, recalling the days after the attacks. "I saw it, and felt it, and smelled it, and tasted it."
MASS OF LITIGATION
The mass of litigation that flowed out of the September 11 attacks is seemingly without end: Since 2001 more than 12,000 victims' families, first responders, cleanup workers, property owners, businesses and insurers have filed lawsuits against a host of defendants, from the airlines to the city of New York to the contractors who handled the recovery efforts at Ground Zero.
Due to a law passed shortly after the attacks, almost every September 11 case has landed on the doorstep of the federal courthouse in Manhattan, only blocks from where the Twin Towers stood.
The cases were eventually consolidated into four "master cases," all overseen by U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein.
There are surely mass tort cases with more plaintiffs, or with greater claims for damages, but lawyers involved say the September 11 litigation has few rivals when it comes to sheer complexity.
"This is one of the most unique pieces of litigation in American history," said Robert Clifford, one of the plaintiffs' liaison counsel for the consolidated case brought by property and business owners who suffered losses.
"The number of plaintiffs may be the same or less as in other mass tort cases," said Joseph Hopkins, co-counsel for the city in its case against the first responders. "But the degree of complexity is many magnitudes of order greater."
'ONE JUDGE CAN'T TRY 10,000 CASES'
The case against the airlines was deceptively simple: Were the attacks preventable, and if so, did the airlines fail in their duty to safely screen their passengers? But security concerns complicated those cases, as lawyers were forced to request security clearance from the government in order to view classified documents related to the attacks.
The case involving first responders and cleanup workers claiming illness from exposure to toxic dust includes the assertion of 350 separate medical conditions. Lawyers in that case first had to assess damages based on each plaintiff's disease, then assign liability by determining what portion of the illness was caused by the dust, and finally decide which defendants were responsible.
Three of the four master cases have largely been settled, and most of the lawyers expect that very few individual lawsuits will ever reach trial, if for no other reason than the time and effort it would take.
The only trial currently scheduled is the wrongful-death suit by Mary Bavis, the mother of Mark Bavis, who died when United flight 175 crashed into the south tower.
James Tyrrell, Hopkins' co-counsel for the city, who helped negotiate a $637 million settlement with Ground Zero workers and emergency responders, said, "You don't have to be a genius to figure out that one judge can't try 10,000 cases in anyone's lifetime."
A shadow hanging over all of the litigation is the absence of those most directly responsible for the attacks -- the 19 hijackers who died when they crashed four airliners in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
This reality has made it confusing and difficult for plaintiffs, many of whom sought more than financial compensation. They wanted an explanation and accountability for the losses they had suffered.
Sheila Birnbaum, the mediator who helped settle the majority of the wrongful-death cases brought by victims' families, said in court documents that the plaintiffs had trouble accepting settlements until they had a chance to express their loss to the airlines directly, in face-to-face mediation sessions.
Marc Moller, a lead counsel for the wrongful-death cases who has represented hundreds of victims' families, said an increased focus on airline security would be an enduring legacy of the plaintiffs' efforts in this litigation.
"They sit across from my desk and say, 'What can I do to make sure this doesn't happen again?'," Moller said.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Xavier Briand)