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Book Analysis: How to Compensate 9/11 Victims

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May 25, 2005

Was the $7 billion paid out by the September 11 Victims’ Compensation Fund -- one award reaching approximately $8.6 million -- a good idea?

That is one of many questions raised by Marshall Shapo, professor at Northwestern University School of Law, in his provocative new book, “Compensation for Victims of Terror” (Oceana, April 2005).

Shapo, a specialist on tort and injury law, sorts through the poignant human stories of the 9/1l tragedy to look at how we as a nation compensate for injuries and other misfortunes. 

His analysis touches upon the extraordinary emotion that fueled Congress’ hasty passage of a law that evolved from authorization to compensate airlines for losses to the creation of the victims’ fund, whose average awards to families was more than $2 million.

Framing the compensation issue within the nation’s context of injuries and misfortunes, Shapo explains how September 11 fits in the broader category of misfortunes. The media’s influence on public policy in its coverage of one of the most spectacular stories of our time is an important focus of the book.    

Shapo’s analysis poses the question of whether September 11 compensation set a precedent for injury law generally as well as explores the boundaries of that area of the law and the tensions it creates. If there are terrorist attacks in the future that kill or injure hundreds or even thousands of people, should Congress provide the same kind of compensation to victims and families? Why has Congress not made provisions for similar benefits for victims of the Oklahoma City bombing? Why are the payments made to families of soldiers who die in combat only a few thousand dollars?

The Victims' Compensation Fund provokes more issues about the logic of compensation for injuries. Does the fortuitous character of the deaths and injuries of September 11 make the case for compensation stronger or weaker? How do injuries and deaths caused by acts of terrorism differ from those caused by more ordinary means? What criteria for compensation should be considered, for example, the financial need or deprivation of the survivors or the negligence of the public or private entities in question?

Shapo draws on the basic concepts of injury law to delve into these questions and present a framework for future lawmakers faced with shaping compensation programs for victims of terror as well as victims of many different kinds of injury.

Interested in how tort law reflects larger tensions in our society, Shapo wrote a book on “Tort Law and Culture” (Carolina Academic Press) in 2003. That book demonstrates how the evolution of American personal injury law frequently reflects deep divisions in our society.