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Critical Choices Forum: The Federal Victims Compensation Fund and Civil Lawsuits

New York City, April 7, 2002

Opening Remarks

Good afternoon and welcome to the Critical Choices Forum.

My name is Susan Herman and I serve as the executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime.

I wish none of you had to be here today, and that none of you had to think through the choices that confront you. But I am glad you decided to come and hear the information we have to offer.

I'd like to thank John Jay College of Criminal Justice for offering this beautiful theater. We are delighted to have C-Span filming us today because we know we will be able to reach many more people who couldn't be here. I would also like to give a special thanks to the New York Times 9/11 Neediest Fund for their generous support of this Critical Choices Forum.

Since 1985, the mission of the National Center for Victims of Crime has been to help victims of crime rebuild their lives. An important part of our work has always been to provide victims information about their rights and what resources are available. Over the years, we have learned that most crime victims, at some point, experience a sense of helplessness or some kind of loss of control over their lives.

We believe that information is more than knowledge—it's power. Learning more about options, feeling comfortable with a decision-making process—can help victims regain a sense of control over their lives.

It is in that spirit that we offer this forum for you today

As you know better than anyone else, you are on a long and difficult journey of rebuilding your lives. There are many steps to this journey—restoring your emotional stability, your physical health, steps that have to do with your families, your jobs, your neighbors—and steps that have to do with creating financial security.

Today we are going to focus on one particularly critical choice you face. Shortly after September 11, Congress created a new federal Victims Compensation Fund for victims of the attacks. If you decide to submit a claim to this Fund, you must give up your right to file a lawsuit. You can no longer sue the airlines, the airports, the various owners of the buildings involved—basically anyone—except the terrorists themselves and countries that support them. On the other hand, if you decide to file a civil lawsuit, you may not file a claim with the Federal Compensation Fund. This is an important decision and one that will have long-lasting consequences for you.

We do not expect that you will leave here today having made up your mind. In fact, our hope is that you don't resolve this today—but that you gain a much better understanding of your options and feel more confident making your decision. Some of you will choose to file a lawsuit. Some will submit claims to the Fund. Some will decide to do neither.

There is no right or wrong decision here. There is only the best choice for you and your family—an informed, thoughtful decision that is right for you.

Neither the Fund nor a civil lawsuit will ever bring back the life you had on September 10th—neither of these options will fully restore you—but each of them has the potential to help you in different ways.

Some of you may choose to file a lawsuit because you want your day in court, or because you want to hold someone accountable, or because you want to try to make sure the events of September 11th will never happen again.

Some of you will want to file a claim with the federal Fund because you want a process that is more predictable than a lawsuit, with a relatively fast outcome. Or you may choose the Fund because you need some financial assistance quickly.

There are many reasons why different people will choose one or the other option. Today we would like to help you explore your own individual reasons because this decision is yours alone—not ours—or anyone else's.

Don't let anyone tell you the decisions are obvious or that there really is no choice. In fact, there are critical choices to make and only you will know what is right for you.

Please let me take a moment to tell you about the packet of materials we gave you.

On the right side you will see information about the Forum today—including our agenda and some general information about the Fund. On the left side there are some extra materials we thought you'd find useful including some information about working with attorneys and other resources available to you.

You'll also see that there are three index cards in your packet. If at any point in the presentation today, you don't understand something, or you want more explanation, we invite you to write your question on a card, pass it to the person sitting toward the aisle. When that person raises their hand, our staff will collect it. I will read them and we will answer as many questions as we can in between the three presentations.

When the presentations are over, you will have an opportunity to ask more questions. There are microphones in the aisles for you to use and you can ask your questions directly. Please know that we will not give you legal advice and we will not be able to review all the details of your situation, but we can refer you to people who will.

In each packet you will also find an evaluation form. When the forum is over we will ask you to take a few moments to fill this out and drop it in one of the boxes at the back of the room. If you need to leave early, please fill it out before you go. We hope to have other forums like this for victims of September 11, and if you have suggestions for how to improve our presentation, we'd like to have them.

We are pleased that we have been joined today by many local service providers: the Red Cross, Safe Horizon, Trial Lawyers Care, Legal Aid, Legal Services, and the City Bar Fund. They will all be here to speak with you after the Forum.

You should also know that if at any point today any of you would like to talk to someone about your feelings—all you have to do is walk to the back of the room and there are counselors who can meet with you privately in several of the nearby rooms.

Now let me explain our agenda for today. Before we get to the specifics of civil lawsuits and the Fund, we are going to give you some general background information about the kinds of losses both options address. Both the Fund and lawsuits can provide some compensation for your economic and non-economic losses. But they deal with them differently. We will talk about these losses in general terms first and later in the afternoon we will talk about them more specifically in the context of lawsuits and the Fund. Our second presentation will focus on civil lawsuits. We will explain who can file them, what it means to sue somebody, and other factors to consider about this option. Finally, we will talk about the federal Victims Compensation Fund. We will explain who is eligible, the kinds of losses it covers, and the procedures for filing a claim.

Before we begin, let me tell you just a bit about our history. In addition to providing direct service to victims, for almost twenty years, the National Center for Victims of Crime has fought to make sure victims have the resources they need, their rights are respected, and their voices are heard. We believe compensation is a fundamental right. Every day we help victims across America access the compensation they are entitled to.

We have also established the National Crime Victim Bar Association, the only professional association in the country for attorneys who represent victims in the civil courts. We believe every crime victim has the right to seek justice in the civil courts. Our National Crime Victim Bar Association has attorney members in all 50 states helping victims seek justice through lawsuits against offenders and other responsible parties.

The new federal Victims' Compensation Fund is different from any other compensation program this country has ever had. I will tell you that the National Center worked hard to change many of its provisions—there are parts we like and parts we don't— but the time for developing the rules is now over and the Fund is what it is. We will not defend it today or critique it. Our purpose today is to explain it and compare it to civil lawsuits.

Now let's begin our presentations...

Closing Remarks

We have time for two more questions and then after we end the program, the three of us will remain if you'd like to ask more questions.

The choice we have discussed today is not only personally difficult—but also extremely complicated. We urge you to seek counsel from a number of people.

Talk to your friends, loved ones, people that you trust. Please see an attorney—and more than one if possible. Remember you can get a sense of how your claim will be handles from the Special Master before you actually file a claim. Call us if you have questions. Try to take enough time to really understand what your personal reasons are for making your decision. Not everyone will want to wait, but at least know you have until December 21, 2003 to file a claim to the Fund.

Remember, in the outer hallway there are tables with representatives from several local organizations offering assistance. There are attorneys and accountants who have volunteered free advice, and social service providers who can help you get the counseling or other kinds of support you need. We invite you to visit with them on your way out.

Before you get up though—please fill out the very short evaluation form in your packet and put the forms in the boxes by the doors. We would very much like to hear from you.

Finally, I want to say that the National Center for Victims of Crime is also here for you as a long-term resource. Call us if you need us at 1-800-FYI-CALL. We will always do the best we can on your behalf.

Thank you for coming. Thank you for your questions and comments. We wish you well.