ATLA updates its efforts to assist 9-11 victims

first_img ATLA updates its efforts to assist 9-11 victims Jan Pudlow Associate Editor More than a year after the September 11 attacks, victims’ families are still so emotionally traumatized that communicating with lawyers trying to help them is very difficult.Even filling out a simple questionnaire was too much for many to complete.So Trial Lawyers Care, created by the Association of Trial Lawyers of America to provide free legal services to the families of thousands of victims of terrorist attacks, switched to a personal in-take process.That proved so devastating for staff members that many needed counseling.Such are the details outlining successes, failures, and unexpected challenges in a September 27, 2002, report from Miami lawyer Larry S. Stewart, president of Trial Lawyers Care, Inc., to Joshua Gotbaum, CEO and executive director of the September 11th Fund.“From a staff standpoint, we have grown to 21 members — all extremely dedicated individuals who work long hours and always seem to achieve the impossible. People who visit our offices invariably come away impressed and energized by the experience,” Stewart said in the report.“At the same time, we have learned that every aspect of this project has been more difficult and taken more time than anyone expected. We now ‘expect the unexpected,’ and our staff is fully prepared to deal with whatever new problem or emergency arises.”TLC averages 50 requests a week and currently about 1,000 attorneys represent 1,480 clients, Stewart reported. Sixteen cases were presented to the special master in July, and awards in 14 of those cases were recently received.“All were in excess of the basic presumptive award formula and demonstrate the need and value of presenting each families’ individual circumstances. Based on the results in the lead cases, it is clear that the TLC efforts will bring real value to the victims and victim families,” Stewart said.Stewart, who received the G. Kirk Haas Humanitarian Award from 2001 Bar President Terry Russell for putting his practice on hold to volunteer for this huge project, stepped down as president in October and remains on the Board of Directors and active in TLC affairs. Leo V. Boyle, formerly vice president, is now president, and Richard A. Beider is the new vice president.The monumental TLC project set up a brand new law office in New York: renting space and equipment, hiring support staff, and rallying volunteer lawyers from around the country to take on potentially thousands of clients who may be eligible for compensation through an expedited federal fund set up for any individual (or relative of a deceased individual) who was physically injured or killed as a result of the terrorist-related aircraft crashes of September 11, 2001, who opt into the program. Claimants do not have to prove negligence or any other theory of liability. If they choose not to participate in the fund, victims may still pursue traditional remedies through the civil justice system.“Effectively reaching the victims has also been made more difficult by the actions of some attorneys who are recruiting clients for fees and have tried to undermine our work,” Stewart said. “Nonetheless, we have responded to every meeting and presentation request, and during this six-month reporting period (April 1 to October 1, 2002), out staff has attended more than 100 such events in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and the Washington, D.C. area organized by affected companies, politicians, social service organizations, other September 11 pro bono lawyers, victim advocates, and referral agencies.“We were not satisfied, however, to simply handle requests from others and have actively sought other opportunities to communicate with the victims.”Those efforts include: • Disseminating over 6,000 information packets via local governments, companies, social service organizations, and consulates. • Making sure written information is available also in Chinese and Spanish, and providing Spanish-speaking staff to speak with claimants in person or on the phone. • Maintaining two toll-free phone lines—one in English and one in Spanish. • Creating a Web site and making sure that TLC is listed on critical Web sites and other victim resources. • Conducting an aggressive, ongoing media campaign to take full advantage of “free media.” “Although there is still much to do in this regard, we feel that our victim outreach efforts have been largely successful, since the requests for legal services from TLC have increased from 450 as of April 1 to over 1,500 as of September 26,” Stewart said.“Of those requests, we determined during our intake process that 65 were ineligible to make a claim in the fund, and those requests were denied. We currently have approximately 1,480 clients being represented by TLC attorneys.”Stewart reported that the project has been very successful in soliciting attorneys willing to volunteer their time to represent victims — but it has not progressed as he originally envisioned.In the weeks following 9-11, more than 2,000 attorneys nationwide volunteered, and that number decreased to about 1,350 after the qualification process. A large number were from areas of the country outside the Northeast, and out-of-state attorneys were only assigned with the client’s agreement.“We found that many New York and New Jersey victims wanted a ‘local’ attorney, and that required us to undertake significant recruitment efforts to meet the demand. Fortunately, we were able to utilize the efforts of some very talented members of the ATLA staff — at no cost to TLC — and we succeeded in recruiting hundreds of additional attorneys,” Stewart said.“As a result, we have maintained a pool of available attorneys, and no victim has had to await an assignment because of the unavailability of a ‘local’ attorney.”Stewart said he learned that there is a “substantial need to have our own staff attorneys in order to support the work of our volunteer attorneys. As a result of the complexity of the Fund process, the ambiguity of the application of the regulations and their application, and the fact that this is a unique and unprecedented endeavor, we have had to expend more time and resources than anticipated to make sure that we provide our volunteer attorneys sufficient assistance.”Three staff attorneys handle dozens of calls a day from more than 1,000 volunteer attorneys in the field.In his report, Stewart detailed problems with a company TLC contracted with for victim intake, data process, and data management.“It turned out that this was a mistake because (the company) was unable to deliver on the commitments that it had made. We first because aware of a problem in March, when the company suddenly delivered to us several hundred ‘new’ victims. As we worked through the process of getting them assigned to an attorney, we discovered that a number were not new at all and that their names had not been timely forwarded to us. We therefore instituted new protocols and checks to prevent a reoccurrence. We also developed and instituted new management procedures to ensure that new victims would be assigned an attorney within seven days, unless there is some extraordinary circumstance that prevents us from doing so.”Growing concerns with the company’s performance prompted TLC to completely take over all aspects of victim intake, data processing, and management, Stewart said, which required additional staff for computer operations and handling phone calls.“Unfortunately, despite all our previous efforts, in reconciling the data that was turned over we discovered an additional 289 client inquiries that had never been turned over for processing. We were very distressed about this discovery, but these inquiries are now being attended to, and we take some comfort in the fact that the entire process is now under our direct control and there should be no further problems.”Stewart said that TLC’s work to provide free legal services to the September 11 victims continues and will not end until approximately six months after December 21, 2003, the last date for filing a claim with the federal Victim Compensation Fund.“If the administration of the fund continues to be substantially delayed, as has been the case up to now, we will need to continue operations for a longer period,” Stewart said.“We also believe that even where clients do not decide to use TLC’s free services, our efforts have had a substantial positive effect on the fees that those clients are going to have to pay, since it has been widely reported in the news media that for-fee attorneys are, for the most part, holding their fees down to 10 percent of awards.” ATLA updates its efforts to assist 9-11 victims November 1, 2002 Associate Editor Regular Newslast_img

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