Sheila Birnbaum Chosen to Oversee 9/11 Health and Compensation Act

The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, providing health care funding and resources for rescue workers injured by toxins after the collapse of the World Trade Center, now has its special master.

Sheila L. Birnbaum, a Class Action/Mass Torts attorney with Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom in New York City, and frequent top 100 attorney in New York Super Lawyers magazine, was recently selected by the Justice Department to administer the multibillion-dollar fund. Her appointment was announced Wednesday.

Ms. Birnbaum is no stranger to mediating 9/11 compensation matters, as we noted in our 2009 feature, "The Pioneer." But for the Zadroga Act, has she sought advice from others, such as Kenneth Feinberg, who administered the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund?

"I did seek advice from Ken Feinberg, who was very helpful," Ms. Birnbaum told us via email. "His advice, which I will certainly follow, is to reach out to the interested groups as soon as you can and get their input. That is exactly what I have already started to do and will continue [to do]."

After 9/11, Birnbaum became a court-appointed mediator in cases involving survivors of 9/11 victims who had opted out of the Victim Compensation Fund. As we noted in 2009:

The task was made even more difficult by the different laws in the various states in which the victims lived. "All such cases involving tragic death are hard," she says, "but working with the 9/11 families was especially emotional because of the high profile of the tragedy-the fact that it was a national and really global catastrophe, one in which all of us have shared." She adds, "It's particularly hard on the impacted families, who because of the public nature of the event must live and relive the death of their loved one."

She explains that many of the families that refused the initial settlement were those for whom the deceased was a particularly high wage earner, or whose income and/or presence supported the special needs of another family member.

"Of course," she adds, "what's extremely difficult-always in these cases-is the impossibility of placing a monetary value on a loved one. We [the mediators] explained that while the focus on a dollar amount may seem crass, it is ultimately what a court does in this context. Indeed it is all a court can do."

She also recalled her own 9/11 experience. That morning she had been walking across Midtown Manhattan to her office when news of the collapse of the World Trade towers spread:

"It was chaos on the streets and sidewalks," she remembers. "No one was quite sure at first what was happening. All transportation had stopped. What was heartwarming to see, as the extent of the disaster sunk in, was how people on the street reacted-trying to help and direct one another, store owners handing out water because it was a warm day and everyone was walking. That night my home, which is on the East Side near 57th Street, became a kind of gathering place for relatives and friends who'd been stranded and couldn't get to their own homes."