NEW YORK - A federal judge who held up an effort to settle thousands of lawsuits filed by 9/11 responders exposed to World Trade Center dust dropped his opposition Thursday after the deal was redrafted to provide more money for sick workers and less for their lawyers.
U.S. District Judge Hellerstein gave his enthusiastic endorsement to a new settlement that could pay as much as $713 million to about 10,000 police, firefighters, and construction workers.
He implored them to take the money, saying it was time to end an ugly and complicated case that has pitted New York City officials against thousands of men and women hailed as heroes for their service at the trade center.
"This is a very good deal. I am very excited about this deal," Hellerstein said during a court hearing in which he signed off on the pact.
Just three months ago, the judge sternly rejected an earlier plan that was worth about $125 million less, saying it did too little for ground zero workers who got sick after breathing toxic ash.
Plaintiffs in the case have complained of breathing and digestive problems, chronic cough, and hundreds of other common and rare ailments.
Among other things, the new proposal would boost payments for people diagnosed with cancer, an illness that has not yet been linked to the dust but is perhaps the most feared among the workers.
The settlement's success is still in doubt. Under the terms of the agreement, 95 percent of the workers involved in the case must opt in for it to take effect. The agreement gives them until Sept. 30 to make up their minds.
Some 9/11 responders had complained the original agreement contained far too little money and said they would rather go to court, or hope Congress would intervene with a richer compensation bill, including one that could be considered this summer in the House.
That bill might contain as much as $8.2 billion in compensation for sick workers, plus $5.1 billion in free health care, but its prospects for passage are uncertain.
John Feal, of the Long Island-based 9/11 victims' group, the FealGood Foundation, praised the improved compensation in the legal settlement but said it still did too little for the sickest responders.
"This should have been in the billions, not in the millions," he said. "But it is better than the first one."
Lawyers on both sides exhorted responders to vote yes.
In March, Hellerstein rejected the initial version of the settlement, partly because he said it was too stingy for the most seriously ill and too rich for their lawyers.
That deal would have paid between $575 million and $657 million, depending on how many people opted in, with about a third of the total going to legal fees.