By Benjamin Weiser New York Times
More than a dozen years after the September 11 attacks, a last major piece of litigation against the airline industry and other defendants moved toward an end on Tuesday, as the Wall Street firm Cantor Fitzgerald revealed that it would settle its lawsuit for $135 million.
Cantor had accused American Airlines of negligence in allowing five terrorists to board the plane in Boston that crashed into the World Trade Center’s north tower, killing 658 of Cantor’s almost 1,000 employees in New York.
No amount of money, of course, could compensate Cantor or its families for the losses on September 11, but the agreement, announced less than a month before the case was to be tried in Manhattan, followed years of legal sparring over what damages Cantor could seek.
After the proceeding, Cantor’s chairman, Howard W. Lutnick, said in a statement: “For the insurance companies, this was just another case, just another settlement, but not for us. We could never, and will never, consider it ordinary. For us, there is no way to describe this compromise with inapt words like ordinary, fair or reasonable. All we can say is that the legal formality of this matter is over.”
American Airlines, in a statement last week after it was first disclosed that an agreement had been reached, said it had “vigorously defended itself in litigation brought against it by property owners and their insurers who allege that American should have done what the government could not do — prevent the terrorist attacks.”
“Although this settlement ends these particular legal disputes,” the statement added, “American will forever honor the memory of the true victims and selfless heroes of 9/11.”
Cantor had sought compensation for the loss of property, like furniture and artwork, and for the interruption of its business, derived from its “exceptionally talented and liberally compensated” brokers, as one Cantor expert put it, whose “deaths severely impacted the dominance enjoyed by the firm.”
At one point, Cantor demanded more than $1 billion, after insurance recoveries, of which about 80 percent was for so-called business interruption.
American argued that Cantor could not legally seek such damages arising from the deaths of its employees. “As tragic as those deaths were,” the airline wrote, “Cantor simply cannot recover such damages.”
Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein of Federal District Court in Manhattan ultimately agreed, finding that New York law does not allow an employer to sue for the wrongful deaths of its employees. Such suits may be brought only by the heirs or estates.
“It sometimes seems unfair because the loss to Cantor is so much more than bricks and mortar,” said Donald A. Migliori, a lawyer whose firm represented several Cantor families who, like most victims of September 11, obtained compensation from a special fund Congress created for September 11 survivors and victims’ families.
Judge Hellerstein, who must still approve the agreement, has already overseen the settlements of lawsuits brought by more than 90 victims and families who opted to sue rather than recover from the victim compensation fund; a $1.2 billion settlement of property and business lawsuits; and claims by more than 10,000 rescue and cleanup workers who alleged illnesses from their work at ground zero.
The judge also dismissed a September 11 suit by World Trade Center Properties, which had leased and operated the center, on grounds that the firm’s insurance recoveries had exceeded its losses. The ruling is under appeal.
In court on Tuesday, Judge Hellerstein said that the settlement to the lawsuit, originally filed in 2004, was “a significant conclusion to many years of effort.” He observed that none of the lawsuits had been tried, leaving questions even after so much had been written and analyzed about what happened on September 11 and how the terrorists had gotten onto the planes.
“Was there really some wrongdoing in terms of negligence that allowed this to happen?” he asked. “All this will remain a mystery. Maybe that’s proper.”
Cantor had argued in court papers that American “owed a duty of the ‘highest possible degree of care’ to prevent a hijacking.” Instead, Cantor said, the airline “cut costs and corners.”
Cantor had said it would “establish at trial” that American only sought to avoid government fines, “and did not strive to achieve the best possible domestic security program.”
American, which denied liability from the outset of the case, argued that it “had no reasonable basis on which to foresee that a gang of suicidal terrorists, armed only with small knives, would take over a plane, pilot it themselves and transform it into a weapon of mass destruction.”
American said it had adhered to federal aviation security regulations and those adopted by the carrier.
After Judge Hellerstein limited Cantor’s damages, the firm reduced its claim to about $475 million; and then again, to about $415 million, according to a person who was briefed on the amount.
In a 2002 document submitted to the victim fund, Cantor said the firm and its families “suffered unspeakable losses” on September 11.
As the document noted, over half of Cantor’s 658 victims had children, most of whom were younger than 12 years old. More than three dozen Cantor widows were pregnant at the time of the attack. More than 750 Cantor children lost at least one parent. At least 20 families lost two members, including many pairs of brothers, a pair of sisters, a father and a daughter; and in some cases, three family members were lost.
Judge Hellerstein said on Tuesday that hopefully some measure of justice, reparation and closure had been achieved.
“There’s been no final accounting,” he said, adding, “The lives that were lost are irreparable.”