Compensation Funds For Victims Of Tragedy A 'Small Solace'

Sep 15, 2013
Originally published on September 18, 2013 8:50 am

Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.

In so many American tragedies, from the attacks of Sept. 11 to the Boston Marathon bombings, victims who survive and the families of those who don't are offered compensation. And when it comes time to figure out who should be compensated and how much, time and time again, Kenneth Feinberg's phone rings.

A big part of his job is figuring out how much money to distribute to whom. "You do the best you can," he tells NPR's Rachel Martin, "You build on what you've done before, and you try and allocate using rough justice. How much of the available funds will be allocated to the dead, to the physically injured in the hospital, to the physically injured not in the hospital, to those suffering purely mental trauma? And you try and do the best you can with what you've got."

It's a "very stressful" calculation, he admits. "But the stress that you have in a back room, deciding who gets what, is nothing like the stress you confront when you meet each eligible claimant."

And the claimants' stories stick with him. Feinberg recalls visiting a victim of the Boston bombings in the hospital, and telling him he'd receive $1.2 million for his injury. Feinberg remembers the injured man replied, "Give me my leg back. You can keep the money. Give me my leg back, that's what I want."

"And you try and explain — rather hollow, but you try and explain that you haven't got that power, or that I wish I did," says Feinberg. "All I can do — and it's small solace — is the compensation."

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

KENNETH FEINBERG: The toughest part of this job, without hesitation, is confronting people with these terrible losses and trying to explain to them, unsuccessfully, that all I'm here to do is offer you some financial stability, some cash. A very poor substitute for a lost loved one.

MARTIN: In the aftermath of any tragedy, once the injured have been treated and the TV cameras have all gone away, that's when Kenneth Feinberg comes in. If first responders address survivors' immediate needs, then it's Feinberg who could be called a final responder. He is a person who dispenses money to those who've survived several recent tragedies in this country, or to the families of those who don't. Feinberg was in charge of the victims' fund after the September 11th attacks, helping the government dole out more than $2 million each to families of those who died.

At the end of the week in which we marked the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we talk with finder about the inherent challenges of his job. Kenneth Feinberg is our Sunday Conversation.

FEINBERG: You're dealing with very vulnerable people who, through no fault of their own, are the victims of traumatic tragedy. You say goodbye to a loved one at breakfast on 9/11, you never see him or her again. You go to have a wonderful day at the Boston Marathon Patriot Day holiday and you end up losing both limbs, as a result of the bombs. You send your daughter or your son to school at Virginia Tech in rural Virginia, and a deranged student gunman kills 32 people.

MARTIN: Is part of your job trying to figure out how much remuneration to give someone for suffering?

FEINBERG: That's a large part of it. How much money do you have it to distribute? And how should that money be allocated among the families of the dead, those physically injured, those who've suffered in hospitals, those who've suffered mental trauma without a physical injury - but witnessed the horror? How do you allocate limited resources to try and provide the greatest benefit that you can, using money as the vehicle?

MARTIN: So how in the world do you do that?

FEINBERG: Well, it's very difficult. It requires the wisdom of Solomon, which I don't have. You do the best you can. You build on what you've done before. And you try and allocate using rough justice. How much of the available funds will be allocated to the dead, to the physically injured in the hospital, to the physically injured not in the hospital, to those suffering purely mental trauma? And you try and do the best you can with what you've got.

MARTIN: It's an amazing amount of pressure, I would imagine.

FEINBERG: It's very stressful but the stress that you have in a back room, deciding who gets what, is nothing like the stress you confront when you meet each eligible claimant.

MARTIN: Can you recount - obviously protecting the privacy of those victims and their families - but was there a particular conversation that was more difficult than others?

FEINBERG: Yeah, and I'll give you a couple of examples. In the Boston Marathon, I went to the hospital to meet a victim who had a leg amputated as a result of the bombings. The victim couldn't come to me. He was still in treatment so I went and saw him. And I said, Mr. Jones, you're going to receive $1,200,000 tax-free for your terrible injury. And he looked at me, he said: Mr. Feinberg, $1,200,000, give me my leg back - you can keep the money - give me my leg back. That's what I want.

And you try and explain, rather hollow, but you try and explain that you haven't got that power or that I wish I did. All I can do, and its small solace, is the compensation.

In 9/11, a lady came to see me, 24 years old, sobbing: Mr. Feinberg, I lost my husband. He was a fireman at the World Trade Center and he left me with my two children, six and four. Now, you're going to give me $2 million tax-free. I want it in 30 days. I said to her, Mrs. Jones, we'll get you the money but it may take a while, we have to go through Treasury and get you a check cut.

She said: No, I want it in 30 days. I said why they wanted so quickly? And she said: Why, Mr. Feinberg, I'll tell you why. I have terminal cancer. I have 10 weeks to live. My husband was going to survive me and take care of our two children. Now they're going to be orphans. I need that money right away while I still have my faculties. I need to set up a program, a trust fund. So we accelerated the money and eight weeks later, we went to her funeral.

You can't imagine the stress and the emotional trauma that goes with meeting these folks and dealing with these terrible tragedies.

MARTIN: You have a family?

FEINBERG: I have a family. I have a wife, three children, grandchildren.

MARTIN: Do you ever worry about your own capacity to manage?

FEINBERG: You certainly do. And unless you have a heart of stone, you can't help but be impacted by this. But you're given an assignment from a president or an attorney general, or the governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts or Mayor Menino. You're asked to do this job. You do it the best you can recognizing that there's no right or wrong, other people might do it very, very differently. We make decisions every day these program that are very provocative, very controversial. And the critics have a lot to say on the merits about whether they would do differently or not.

MARTIN: Have you ever made the wrong call?

FEINBERG: Oh, I make the wrong call every day in these programs. What's right? What's wrong? In the Boston Marathon we decided in order to get the money out quickly and get it all out to the victims, we would say that anybody who lost a loved one - four people died in the marathon - will get the same amount; about $2 million tax-free. Some critics said that you should take into account the financial wherewithal of the families.

Why give a family that lost a child the same amount as a family who lost a breadwinner? Why give a family with $10 million in the bank the same amount as a family that is barely getting by? Why don't you make means testing, financial wherewithal a factor? We decided not to. I'm not saying we were right. I believe we were. So I reject those arguments but I can understand those arguments, they're not without foundation.

MARTIN: I wonder how you think about this chapter in your life and career. I mean, this is I imagine far away from what you thought you would be doing as an attorney, a corporate lawyer.

FEINBERG: I - you're right. I mean, I never thought that I'd be asked to do this. And I must say I shudder when you read about a tragedy that - they're not going to ask me to do this again. I mean, I've done it and you hope that you won't be asked to repeat. But if I'm asked, like millions of Americans, you step up. You can't expect to get paid for this. You can't expect to receive thank you from the victims 'cause you're not going to get thank you. I can assure you of that.

MARTIN: You don't?

FEINBERG: Absolutely not. If anybody does these jobs expecting appreciation or thanks when - or satisfaction when people are taking money as a result of terrible damage to their lives, you better not expect that. You better brace yourself for very emotional responses.

MARTIN: If you'll forgive the kind of big philosophical question, but lawyers I have known will admit that part of the work is understanding human nature. But I wonder if this particular kind of work you have tapped into something else that a lot of us don't experience, having these intersections, these conversations with people who have experienced such tragedies.

FEINBERG: Well, what you do learn is the diversity of human nature. I am amazed in these programs - 9/11; Boston Marathon; Virginia Tech; Newtown, Connecticut; Aurora, Colorado - I'm amazed at how individual victims react along a wide spectrum. Anger, disappointment, frustration. I venture to say half the people that I've dealt with as a result of tragedy are more religious than they might have been before hand.

The other half explained to me how there is no God, there couldn't be, and they'll set foot in a church or a synagogue again, as a result of this searing to this serendipitous tragedy. So you brace yourself for every conceivable type of human emotion that is directed at you as the sort of focal point, the administrator, of a program like this.

MARTIN: Kenneth Feinberg, he is a victim fund administrator. He's worked on everything from 9/11 to the Boston bombings. He joined us in our studios here in Washington.

Mr. Feinberg, thank you so much for talking with us.

FEINBERG: Thank you.


MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.