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Sept. 11 victims fund chief shares poignant, practical experience

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Kenneth Feinberg brought tears to many of the attorneys who heard him speak Tuesday at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis about overseeing the compensation fund for victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Giving people an opportunity to be heard validates the process,” Feinberg said, recalling some 900 hearings that took place in the weeks after the attacks, when Congress set up an unprecedented and uncapped victim compensation fund. Feinberg said the stories remain powerful and haunting.

He relayed the experience of talking with a mother of two whose firefighter husband died in the response to the attack on the World Trade Center. The woman insisted she be compensated within weeks.

When Feinberg asked why, the woman said she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had only 10 weeks to live; the children’s father had been the parent who was going to raise them. Feinberg said aid was expedited to establish a trust for the children, and the mother died soon after.

“The stories you hear, you can’t make up,” he said.

Feinberg spoke on the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks and participated in a panel discussion with Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller and attorneys involved with efforts to provide compensation to Indiana State Fair stage collapse victims. The event was moderated by I.U. McKinney School of Law professor Robert Katz.

Zoeller praised Feinberg’s pro bono assistance in helping devise a plan to distribute the $5 million allowed by the Indiana Tort Claims Act to State Fair stage collapse victims. Zoeller said he contacted Feinberg for advice on handling compensation and Feinberg volunteered in a spirit that was “overflowing with generosity.”

“Ken said, ‘I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, what you’re going through,’” Zoeller recalled.

Feinberg offered three tips for success for people who deal with victim compensation funds: Get the money out fast, get it out without condition, and don’t expect thanks or appreciation.

“The biggest mistake I ever made,” Feinberg said, was telling a man who lost his son on Sept. 11, “I know how you feel.” The man reacted with measured scorn, Feinberg said, saying that he knew Feinberg had a difficult job, then telling him, “you have no idea how I feel.”

“I’ll never say that again,” Feinberg said.

The advisability of victim compensation funds also is a question of law and public policy, Feinberg said, explaining that they can be seen as unjust “absent a tragedy that’s going to galvanize a community.”

He said even with the Sept. 11 victim compensation, questions arose from victims of the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center of why they were uncompensated. “There are all sorts of challenges to the legitimacy of these programs,” Feinberg said. “Bad things happen to good people every day, and you don’t have access to an accelerated legal system.”

Feinberg, who also is overseeing the $20 billion compensation fund for the BP Gulf oil spill, is the preeminent expert in the administration of victim compensation funds. He has overseen compensation funds for the victims of the Virginia Tech school shootings that killed 32 and the Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed more than 100, among others.

Zoeller said Feinberg’s experience helped Indiana officials navigate the unfamiliar territory of mass disaster claims.

“While we hope we are never faced with another such tragedy on state property, the model he helped the attorney general’s office develop in the first phase of compensation could be utilized again here and in other states,” Zoeller said in a statement.

The Legislature has since approved an additional $6 million for the stage collapse victims.

 

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