MARGARET WARNER: Less than two weeks after the September 11 attacks, Congress took steps it said would help the victims' families. As part of a $15 billion airline bailout bill sharply limiting the airlines' liability to lawsuits, Congress created a government-financed fund for the families of the more than 3,000 people killed or injured in the attacks. The fund aims to compensate the families for economic losses, like lost wages and future earnings, and for non-economic losses, like pain and suffering. Life insurance, pension and other benefits must be deducted from the final payment, though charity assistance won't be. In return, beneficiaries must agree not to sue anyone over the attacks.
In late November, Attorney General John Ashcroft named Washington lawyer Kenneth Feinberg special master to administer the program. The law gives Feinberg, who is serving without pay, wide latitude to determine the size of individual awards. On December 20, Feinberg issued preliminary rules on how the money would be paid out.
KENNETH FEINBERG: The statute that was passed by Congress, signed by the president shortly after September 11. The statute as I stated in my prepared statement is unprecedented in its expression of compassion to the victims and their families. And that statute guides all that we do with these regulations.
MARGARET WARNER: Feinberg said each victim's family would get the same amount for pain and suffering, $250,000, with another $50,000 for each dependent spouse and child. But the payment for economic loss would be different for each family, depending on the victim's age, income, future earning power, and number of dependents. Feinberg said the average award would be about $1.6 million before deducting other benefits. And he urged families to participate instead of going to court.
KENNETH FEINBERG: The Department of Justice has helped in developing a program which I think, for what it is designed to accomplish, is unprecedented in its effectiveness. Give the program a chance to work. It is vastly preferable to the litigation alternative.
MARGARET WARNER: Feinberg invited public comment on his proposed rules, and he's gotten an earful at town hall-style meetings like this one in Staten Island last Monday.
WOMAN: The final figure they gave me is $137,800. Where is the fair and just in that?
WOMAN: So how can you not use all your discretion in order to allow these family members the most that they can get, especially under pain and suffering, when you know that on September 12 the Congress, in fact, took away everybody in this room's right to be able to get more than $250,000.
MARGARET WARNER: Laurie Laychak, whose husband, David, died in the Pentagon attack, says the formula, after all the deductions, will leave her with nothing.
LAURIE LAYCHAK: This is not to make me rich at all. It would be so I would not have to sell my house, so that I could keep my kids at the same school where they're going, and I could live where I am and maintain the same standard of living as if my husband were still providing for us.
MARGARET WARNER: The families' complaints have generated a backlash in some quarters, including a Justice Department Web site inviting comments about the program. "I initially supported the idea behind this fund," one e-mailer wrote, "but what's surfacing now is greed on the part of many victims' families." "If these people had died in a hurricane or tornado or snowstorm or any natural disaster, then this compensation fund would not exist," wrote another. "The victims' families should feel blessed." And another: "They should be the most grateful people ever, not the loudest complainers." Feinberg is expected to issue the final regulations later this month.