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Meet the 9/11 lawyer who decides how much a life is worth

Meet the 9/11 lawyer who decides how much a life is worth

Written by – Arshita Anand, News Writer

On September 11, twenty years ago from today, Washington attorney Kenneth Feinberg was in Philadelphia teaching a law school class on mediating class-action lawsuits.

After class got over, he saw some students huddled around a TV, which displayed news about the attack on World Trade Centre. Feinberg thought it was an accident, but it was a well planned attack.

The attack resulted in several lives being lost and several being changed forever, Feinberg’s included.

Two months after the terrorist attacks, Feinberg was handed an unthinkable task by Congress: assigning dollar values to the 3,000 lives lost that day, as well as the thousands injured. As special master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, Feinberg presided over an unprecedented, unlimited budget to repay families what could never be repaid.

However, there was no set of regulations to do that.

“What’s a fair amount for a body?” said Feinberg, now 75, during an interview. “It’s not justice. It’s not fairness. It can’t be fairness. It’s mercy.”

Feinberg and his office administrator Camille Biros went on to distributing more than $7 billion to 5,562 people. A Netflix film “Worth” that premiered this past Friday depicts this story.With backing from former President Barack Obama’s production company, the movie stars Michael Keaton as Feinberg, Amy Ryan as Biros and Stanley Tucci as Charles Wolf, a New York man whose wife was killed in the attacks and who later protested Feinberg’s oversight.

Feinberg says that the movie is a fairly accurate representation of the course of actions taken, including his own evolution from a by-the-books attorney to “a rabbi and a priest and a nun,” as he put it.

“There’s a certain dramatic license that they play in the film,” said Feinberg, a father of three adult children who lives in Bethesda with his wife, Diane. “But I must say that the emotion was overwhelming.”

Born in Boston, Feinberg attended the University of Massachusetts, where he got involved with American history and theater. He even tried to pursue acting as a career but his father talked him out of it.

 “Ken, most actors end up waiting tables in New York City and starving,” Feinberg recalled his father saying in his autobiography. “Why not take your acting talents to law school? You can play Hamlet in front of juries.”

After law school at New York University, Feinberg became a law clerk and then a federal prosecutor in Manhattan. In 1975, he landed a job as counsel to Kennedy on the Judiciary Committee, where he helped craft the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Feinberg later rose to become Kennedy’s chief of staff.

In 1983, his career turned away from politics. A federal judge in New York asked him to mediate a lawsuit filed by Vietnam veterans against the chemical industry over Agent Orange, a “tactical herbicide” used by the U.S. military during the war that left thousands of service members sick.

His impactful voice was a huge strength he was blessed with that made both the parties to a mediation think they were agreeing to something that resembled something like fairness.

He and Biros came up with a formula for compensation based on current and future income with the goal of making sure that 85 percent of the funds weren’t paid to the highest income-earners, including wealthy financial executives at brokerage firms, including Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost more than 650 workers at the World Trade Center.

This formula got a lot of criticism. A website called fixthefund.org was set up by Mr. Wolf, the husband of one of the deceased, as a display of retaliation

On the site, in his “statement of purpose,” Wolf wrote:

Ken Feinberg is everything the Founding Fathers of this country were striving to avoid when they wrote the Constitution. With a sparsely written law, Feinberg was forced to write most of the details himself in the form of regulations. Then, he has to implement what he just wrote, pointing back to those same regulations as unbendable rules. Finally, he is the final adjudicator as the law prohibits judicial review by the courts. Feinberg has the power of King George III; he is lawmaker, administrator, judge and jury.

“Nobody really felt like he was listening to us,” Wolf said in an interview.

The fund was inspired by a desire to get victims to accept the payments and waive the right to sue the airlines, sparing the airline industry from collapsing under thousands of lawsuits.

But Feinberg and Biros continued their work, meeting with the victims’ families and listening to their stories.

One of the victims, a burned man showed up to Feinberg’s office with a team of doctors.

“Singed, no eye brows, no hair at all,” Feinberg remembered. “Artificial skin.”

“It was horrible,” Biros said.

There was nothing requiring him to come in for the meeting.

“But he wanted to be heard,” Biros said. “He wanted people to know what happened to him.”

Wolf started noticing change in Feinberg after this. He admitted that Feinberg seemed to be much more empathetic now, and willing to adjust awards beyond the formula.

 “It was like God came down and talked to Ken,” Wolf said.

The process wrecked Feinberg, Biros and the firm’s lawyers.

“You cry in private, never professionally in front of the families,” Feinberg said. “And then you’re up all night. What do we do with this one? What about this? What about them? And it’s just debilitating.”

The disbursement of funds for the victims of 9/11 attacks made Feinberg’s firm the go-to law firm to administer compensatory funds following other tragedies. It included the mass shootings at Virginia Tech University, Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and the movie theater in Aurora, Colo, the 2010 BP oil spill, victims of clergy sexual abuse etc.

Their firm got popular to the point that they no longer needed to look for tragic incidents. They knew people would be contacting them anyhow in such cases.

 “If it’s on the front page,” Feinberg said, “we just know we’re going to get that call.”

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