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Los Angeles Times

9/11 Responders Rally For Right to Sue Over Ground Zero Illnesses



The Chief-Leader/Pat Arnow

'WHO ARE THEY KIDDING?': Michael Valentin of the 9/11 Police Aid Foundation was out in the rain to protest the city's motion to dismiss more than 4,000 police officer and fire responders' lawsuits claiming that they became ill or injured working at the World Trade Center site.

March 27, 2009—Uniformed 9/11 responders March 19 gathered at City Hall to protest the city's motion to dismiss lawsuits by more than 4,000 police and firefighters claiming that they were made ill or injured working at Ground Zero on the grounds that the unique nature of uniformed employees' jobs exempts them from the workplace protections that are required for others.

The responders—firefighters, police officers and Emergency Medical Service members—argue that contractors should be held liable for unsafe conditions during the cleanup at the World Trade Center site. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that thousands of responders working on the clean-up subsequently acquired various respiratory illnesses as well as psychological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. The legal challenge is to a court decision to keep the captive insurance fund closed.

UFOA: Asserting Basic Right

"What justification is there other than greed [regarding] the preservation of this captive insurance fund?" said Uniformed Fire Officers Association President John J. McDonnell during the rally. "All these people are asking for is the right every single one of us has as American citizens, and that is the right to challenge this court decision."

He argued that more 9/11 responders will become sick in the future. "There is more yet to come," he said. "This is not the end of 9/11."

Michael Valentin of the 9/11 Police Aid Foundation said, "I can understand the argument if it was the first two weeks that we were there, because we were searching for human life. But to leave us on the pile for three, four months? Come on. Who are they kidding?"

Mr. Valentin asserted that the city wanted to dismiss all related lawsuits, which would become moot if a 9/11 health bill is passed in Congress that would secure permanent Federal funding for health treatment and monitoring for 9/11 responders and reopen the Victims' Compensation Fund.

City: Not Covered By Labor Law

"The uniformed plaintiffs' claims under [state labor law] fail as a matter of law because it is undisputed that the uniformed plaintiffs do not fall within the class of employees entitled to the protections of the labor law," Assistant Corporation Counsel Jim Tyrrell said in papers filed in Manhattan Federal court. "The uniformed plaintiffs are not 'employees' as that term is defined under the law because they are not 'mechanics, workingmen, or laborers' that are 'working for hire.'"

He added, "Nor can the uniformed plaintiffs establish that they were 'employed' within the scope of the labor law because they were hired by the [Fire Department] and [the Police Department], not by a construction site owner, general contractor, or their agent."

Lower Manhattan City Councilman Alan J. Gerson noted during the rally that while the city was invoking the letter of the law, it had the moral responsibility to cover the 9/11 responders.

"The city should not be just a party to litigation," he said. "Our city should not use legal technicalities and loopholes to prevent you from having your day in court. Our city must act as a city, as the arm of the community, and that means standing behind those who are our Bravest and Finest, and instead of fighting, negotiating and committing itself to coming up with just payment as you deserve."

'Help Those Who Are Dying'

Mr. Valentin said he would welcome the passage of the 9/11 health bill, but said in the meantime 9/11 responders should be compensated through the courts.

"This will eliminate New York's liability and the contractors' liability," he said of the bill. "But we need to help the people who are dying now and are sick now."

Marianne Pizzitola, president of the Uniformed FDNY EMS Retirees Association and a pension consultant to the EMS officers' union, rejected the city's legal argument.

"What's next?" she asked in an email. "Make us sign injury waivers upon engaging employment with the city and making us pay for our own line-of-duty funerals with penalties for disrupting their schedule?"