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Groner describes fighting for 9/11 first responders

by Amanda Glodowski

William Groner
photo by Philip Ennis

What started as a single phone call from a New York City Police Department detective to a law firm led to litigation that culminated in a courtroom battle that would make history.

Personal defense attorney William Groner '77 assumed the task of working on a case that began not on Sept. 11, but on Sept. 12, when he agreed to represent nearly 10,000 9/11 first responders who had been affected by caustic Ground Zero dust.

"That first call resulted in a nine-year litigation that morphed into a 10,000-client, epic David-and-Goliath battle," Groner said.

Groner told his story at the Binghamton University Forum, held Nov. 14 at Traditions at the Glen in Johnson City. A psychology major while at Binghamton University, Groner gave a presentation titled "Ground Zero Dust: Its Mysterious Medical Consequences and the Resulting Epic First Responder's Litigation."

Groner's Westchester County firm, Worby Groner Edelman LLP, received a call in 2003 from an NYPD detective that Groner said "changed my life, and the lives of many people."

The detective had been a first responder at Ground Zero, and had recently developed acute myeloid leukemia. Groner and his partners did their research and discovered a relationship between the cancer and exposure to benzene, a component of jet fuel.

"It was a tough case, with a terrible injury, but this man deserved to be represented," Groner said. More calls flooded in after Groner and his firm agreed to take on the case.

In order to better explain the magnitude of the poison contained in the Ground Zero dust, Groner told the Forum audience that "dust was created from everything in the towers — 6 million square-feet of masonry, 5 million square-feet of painted surfaces, 7 million square-feet of flooring, 600,000 square-feet of window glass, 200 elevators, and everything else inside. The computers, the fixtures, the furniture, they all became dust — up to 1 million tons of dust."

The dust consisted of asbestos, metal, lead, magnesium, acidic aerosols, mercury, glass fibers, silica, sulfur and volatile organic compounds. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even sent a top expert in the country, Dr. John Howard, to evaluate the situation.

Groner's clients had an array of ailments, including restrictive lung disease, asthma, obstruction of the airways, inflammation of the nasal and sinus passages, acid reflux, cardiac disease and sleep apnea.

With 121 cancer cases on his hands by 2004, Groner was stumped. If the cancers were related to the dust, there should have been a much longer latency period, yet the trend within his clients was indisputable.

When Groner asked Howard what he thought about the correlation, Howard's response was: "It's beyond science."

"Although the presence of so many caustic substances was undeniable, there were many uncertainties," Groner said. "One critical, confounding question: What is the synergy amongst the components? This was a new frontier that the scientific community knew little about.

"We knew we lost 3,000 people in the towers and in the planes on 9/11— that's the handiwork of Al-Qaeda. But the real question people had was: 'From 9/12 and on, from the dust, how many more are we going to lose? How deep is Al-Qaeda's wound going to be upon us?'" he said.

Groner was working on a contingency basis — unless the case was won, he would not be paid. Congress had set aside billions of dollars to protect the airlines and the City of New York against lawsuits. The defendants had incurred $200 million in lawyers' fees.

"I had the good guys, and (they) had a billion dollars," Groner said.

Groner said that there was a need for New York City to show the world that "(Americans) are going to be resilient and would come back and get Wall Street lit up again as fast as possible, and that was the key: If you go as fast as possible, you are not going to have a culture of safety."

"The duty of New York" was to provide respiratory protection in a clean-up site, and that did not happen," Groner said.

"We thought we had an absolutely clear-cut case because of that," he said. "The compliance rate was as low as 29 percent. It was a culture of non-compliance, and safe practices add costly time."

The case traveled all the way up to federal court, and a deal was ultimately stuck for an $816 million settlement.

"I think 'Why me?'" Groner said. "First, it was happenstance; it was the luck of the draw that a resident of the community knew of our firm by reputation and called us. I think it was a bit of bravado and ignorance (on my part), because if I knew then what I know now, that there would be a law firm that would spend $200 million in lawyers' fees to beat us, I don't think I would have taken the case. I was getting to a point in my trade where I felt really good about what I do, and this was the next big hurdle to go after.

"Every little battle you fight is a way to present yourself so that you're strong, you're learning, you're growing — and then the cream rises to the top. You have to grow all the way through and posture yourself for success. ... My clients are the true heroes."

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Last Updated: 12/18/13