Twelve years after the event, a jury finds someone to blame for the Islamist van-bomb attack that killed six, injured nearly 1,000, and caused costly business dislocation (Sept. 21, 2005, Dec. 5, 2004, Oct. 12-14, 2001). The culprit? The Port Authority, an agency whose losses are likely to be ultimately borne by New York and New Jersey taxpayers, motorists and air travelers:
The jury voted unanimously that the Port Authority [then-owner of the WTC] was negligent. It found the authority 68 percent at fault for the bombing, while the terrorists who carried it out were 32 percent at fault.
Mr. [David J.] Dean, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said that because the jury apportioned more than half the blame to the Port Authority, the agency will have to pay 100 percent of any damages for pain and suffering, the so-called non-economic damages, that might be awarded.
Regardless of how the blame was shared, the Port Authority would have to pay 100 percent of any economic damages, like lost business, he said.
Separate legal proceedings will be used to determine actual payouts; “Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they were seeking a total of as much as $1.8 billion.” And this from Mr. Dean: “The case was never about blaming the terrorists.” Well, of course it wasn’t, from his point of view, was it? (Anemona Hartocollis, “Port Authority Found Negligent in 1993 Bombing”, New York Times, Oct. 27).
So there you have it. “What is robbing a bank compared with founding a bank?” wrote Bertolt Brecht, and now we learn that being the target of a terrorist act carries with it more than twice as much responsibility for the resulting damage as actually planting and detonating the bomb. The jury’s (and plaintiff’s lawyer’s) rationale was that security experts had warned that the use of car bombs was on the rise, and yet the PA did not take the (massively disruptive to its tenants) step of closing its enormous underground garage to the public. Inevitably, the lawyers portrayed the earlier advice as a “smoking gun”, a strategem I describe in Chapter 6 of The Litigation Explosion:
Among the favorite smoking-gun generators are memo debates or unheeded suggestions within an organization. The sought-after memo will advise the hotel to dismantle the diving board, the brokerage to go easy on the risky investment, the magazine to kill the hard-hitting investigative story, the hospital to close down the vaccination program that has attracted malpractice suits. (They knew it was wrong to go ahead!) New York City injury king Harry Lipsig’s law firm got a $1.8 million settlement for forty-six-year-old postal worker Freddie Brown, mugged and badly hurt in a housing project lobby, after they found a security specialist whose recommendations to upgrade security at the project had gone unheeded. “We couldn’t lose,” jubilated lawyer Thomas Stickel. “With that witness, we had the city by the throat.” Actually, it would be a wonder if the files of a city as intensively governed as New York did not contain unheeded recommendations by the bushelful on countless subjects.
The logic of lawyers’ search for “smoking guns” is that an organization faces one of three unattractive choices: put itself at risk for verdicts like this; implement any and all recommendations it gets from security experts, no matter that many of them will be costly and intrusive (like, say, stadium patdowns for football fans) and will guard against dangers that never would have materialized; or alternatively, arrange its affairs so that fewer safety recommendations enter its files in the first place, either by asking its experts to commit fewer ideas to paper, or just by not employing them. The New York Sun quotes me today in its coverage of the story: David Lombino, “Port Authority Is Held Liable in Bombing That Killed Six in 1993 Attack on WTC”, New York Sun, Oct. 27. More:Ann Althouse and commenters discuss the verdict, while Michael Krauss at Point of Law hopes it will be thrown out on grounds of lack of proximate cause.