Behind closed doors, lawyers begin to prepare for the inevitable battle

Compensation Claims
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The Independent US

Few American lawyers are willing to talk openly about the lawsuits and compensation claims which will inevitably follow Tuesday's terrorist attack on their nation.

But in private the lawyers of New York and Washington acknowledge that many of the questions now being asked about airline security, high-rise building design and government inaction will have to be answered in a courtroom.

"If there is any blame to be found in all this human misery then you can be sure it will be the subject of litigation," said one Washington lawyer.

Mark Stephens, an international litigation expert with the London law firm Finers Stephens Innocent, was attending a law conference in Washington when an American Airlines jet plunged into the Pentagon.

Speaking from his hotel he said yesterday: "It's inconceivable that there won't be class actions brought by the survivors and families of the dead."

The airlines, said Mr Stephens, are in the front line of any legal action because they owed a direct duty of care to their passengers to protect their safety. By failing to stop armed terrorists from boarding the aircraft, lawyers will argue, they failed in that duty.

The US airport authorities implicitly acknowledged this potential liability yesterday by putting on record their opinion that airlines, not airports, are solely responsible for passenger safety.

Any successful claim against an airline is likely to dwarf the record $3.2bn (£2.2bn) – later reduced to $100m (£68m) – awarded this year against tobacco giant Philip Morris for damages to a cancer sufferer.

The successful claims brought by the families of passengers who died aboard the Pan Am jet that exploded over Lockerbie have already established that an airline can be held liable for terrorist attack.

Initially, Pan Am refused to offer more than £50,000 for each of the 270 victims, but the airline's insurers eventually paid more than £500m after an American federal court ruled the airline was responsible for allowing a bomb to be taken on board.

In the next few weeks the US government could also find itself the focus of a massive compensation claim.

Under the American constitution, the state has a duty to inform its citizens and keep them safe. Such a huge lapse in national security, said Mr Stephens, could open up a claim for state negligence. And if it later transpires that the US air force had a role to play in shooting down the airliner that crashed in Pennsylvania, the families of the dead might be able to sue the state for manslaughter.

Other compensation claims could be brought against the architects of the World Trade Centre whose structure, it might be argued, should have been built to withstand even the thunderous impact of a crashing airliner.

Relatives of the thousands of workers who died fleeing the explosions and collapsing towers will examine the standard of emergency training available to employees. If fire escapes or other emergency exits were blocked, the building's management could be liable. Emergency service departments that sent in rescue teams just before the towers crumbled could also face lawsuits.

Families who watched harrowing television coverage of the tragedy may be able to bring claims for post traumatic shock in the same way that families of the Hillsborough victims sued the police after they saw live pictures of loved ones crushed to death during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.

Mr Stephens, who watched the local coverage in America, said: "After the watershed some of them [the US TV stations] showed close-ups of people waving handkerchiefs out of windows [of the towers] and then later of them jumping and bouncing off the building."

Insurance companies will meet claims in the first instance. But the total compensation bill will not be known until insurers have brought their own court cases to recover potentially massive pay-outs.