Difficult, debilitating: Man who assigned value to each 9/11 death – Times of India


How much is a life worth? Within 11 days of the 9/11 attack, the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund was up and running, grappling with this question. Making these tough decisions — how much each victim would have made in a lifetime — was special master Kenneth Roy Feinberg, an attorney specialising in mediation and alternative dispute resolution. It was difficult, and it was painful, he told TOI.
In the 33 months he was special master, Feinberg sanctioned $7.1 billion for about 5,300 families. The average compensation for death was about $2 million and average physical injury claim $400,000. The fund didn’t discriminate based on citizenship — undocumented workers and foreign nationals were also compensated. And Feinberg worked pro bono. The fund was created out of the law of torts.
For the 9/11 attack, there were multiple potential lawsuits — against the airline, the WTC, private security companies. “The victim compensation fund was, according to Congress, a better alternative as it also saves families five to10 years in courts, fighting cases they may not win,” Feinberg said. “The law is clear in the US. Each family’s compensation is calculated by the economic loss suffered by the victim’s death. For example, a stockbroker makes more than a waiter or a policeman. So, as per the American legal system, a stockbroker (or his family) gets more money.”
Did that seem fair, valuing lives differently? “I wouldn’t call it fair. I don’t like to use words like ‘fair’ or ‘justice’. Money as a substitute for loss is pretty hollow. It is mercy — that’s a better word and that’s the American legal system. I would have much preferred to give every death the same value — all lives are equal.” Two families never litigated or opted into the fund. “A priest who lost a brother said it was god’s will. And an 82-year-old woman was so paralysed with grief that she did nothing and let her fund expire.”
What did make the job difficult, Feinberg said, was emotion. “Emotionally dealing with families in grief — angry and frustrated — was very difficult and debilitating.” Families would bring in trinkets, diplomas, medals of honours, recordings of last calls to show the lives of the loved ones they had lost. A Hollywood film based on the struggle to compensate victims, starring Michael Keaton as Feinberg, was released this week. The fund, he said, was unique. “I believe this was a unique response to a historically unprecedented tragedy.”

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