NEW YORK CITY — A federal judge signed off on a legal settlement Thursday that could pay as much as $713 million to 9/11 responders exposed to World Trade Center dust, and immediately urged thousands of police, firefighters and construction workers to take the deal.
U.S. District Judge Hellerstein gave his enthusiastic endorsement to the proposed package just three months after sternly rejecting an earlier plan that would have put less money into the hands of ground zero workers who got sick after breathing the toxic ash.
The new proposal would give roughly $125 million more to the workers, plus increased payments for people who have been diagnosed with cancer — an illness that hasn’t yet been linked to the dust, but is among the most feared among the workers.
“This is a very good deal. I am very excited about this deal,” Hellerstein said. “There are 10,000 people out there, and I hope 100 percent come into it.”
The settlement’s success is still highly in doubt.
Under the terms of the agreement, 95 percent of the 10,000 workers involved in the case must opt in for it to be in effect.
They must chose quickly. The agreement gives them only 90 days to make up their minds.
Some 9/11 responders had complained the original agreement contained far too little money, and said they would hold out for something better or hope Congress would intervene with a richer compensation bill.
Hellerstein warned potential holdouts that they were risking prolonging the complicated case for years, and might wind up with nothing if they couldn’t prove that their illnesses were linked to trade center dust.
“There is no better deal. This is the deal on the table,” he said.
Lawyers representing a majority of the workers and the city, which was the main defendant in the lawsuits, joined together in exhorting responders to vote yes.
“We have a settlement that is fair, transparent, clear, certain,” said Margaret Warner, a lawyer for the insurance fund defending the city.
Nicholas Papain, whose firm represents about 640 firefighters, said “what is being offered in this settlement is their best option, and, for all intents and purposes, their only option.”
In March, Hellerstein rejected the initial version of the settlement, partly because he said it was too stingy for the most seriously ill responders and too rich for their lawyers. That deal would have paid between $575 million to $657 million.
Some of the increase in the total payout comes in the form of reduced legal fees. Attorneys representing the responders covered by the settlement agreed to take 25 percent of the award, rather than the third or more they were originally slated to receive. That change was worth about $50 million.
A special insurance fund, set up by Congress to defend the city and compensate dust victims, will kick in $50 million more. Workers’ compensation insurers also agreed to waive certain claims to recover some of the money they have already paid out to trade center responders — a move worth additional millions to the workers.