A prominent New York attorney known as the "Queen of Torts" for her courtroom defense of some of the country's top companies is tackling a vastly different job -- running the $2.78 billion fund to compensate ground zero workers and others who say they were sickened by the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack wreckage.
The Justice Department tapped Sheila Birnbaum for the post on Wednesday, citing her previous work as the mediator in lawsuits brought by families of the victims of the attack. In that role she negotiated a settlement of $500 million for 92 families who sought claims.
"My first priority will be to sit down with the people who will be most affected by the program, and see how we can design a program that is fair, transparent and easy to navigate," Birnbaum, 71, said in a statement announcing her appointment. "The fund needs to get up and running quickly. At the same time, I want to make sure we do it right."
Birnbaum has spent much of her career working for big corporations, often fighting to reverse damages against them. The former elementary school teacher has been nicknamed the "Queen of Torts" and "Madame Products Liability" for her success in complex, massive tort and insurance litigation.
Birnbaum won a celebrated punitive damages case in 2003 when the Supreme Court struck down a $145 million verdict against State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co.
Instead of siding with well-heeled corporate interests, her new job will focus on deciding which ground zero victims are compensated for their illnesses.
Birnbaum is not a familiar face to the small army of activists, families and others who have worked for nearly a decade to win help for those sickened in the attacks.
"I was a little bit surprised," said Dr. James Melius, an occupational health expert who administers the New York State Laborers' Health and Safety Fund and chairs a committee for two existing World Trade Center health programs. "She's not someone who has been involved in the legislation or the background on this. There are a lot of critical issues and not a lot of time."
Funding for the compensation fund kicks in Oct. 1. Melius said he hopes Birnbaum will be able to get up to speed quickly.
John Feal, former demolition supervisor from New York's Long Island who lost part of a foot in the attacks and later suffered lung damage, founded the Fealgood Foundation to aid people sickened after the attacks. He said he's not concerned about Birnbaum's work for corporate clients.
"She was a pleasant surprise," said Feal, who met with Birnbaum for two hours on Wednesday in New York. "I believe she's going to be fair, she's going to be compassionate and she's going to be reasonable. This will be someone who can work with us. We need a friend, and she will be a friend."
Feal said he was confident Birnbaum will give full consideration to the concerns of activists, particularly having cancer and psychological illnesses covered by the program.
Only a few diseases were singled out by name in the legislation creating the fund, including asthma, certain types of lung disease and a handful of other respiratory ailments. They were included because research has suggested there is a link between those illnesses and the tons of caustic dust that blanketed lower Manhattan after the twin towers collapsed. There is less evidence that ties ground zero toxins to cancer.
Last December, Congress passed a bill to provide up to nearly $4.3 billion in new aid to survivors of the World Trade Center and responders who became ill working in its ruins. The package provides $1.5 billion to monitor the health of rescue and cleanup workers and treat illnesses related to ground zero. It also reopened a victims' compensation fund with $2.78 billion that Birnbaum will administer. President Obama signed it into law in January.
New York lawmakers who played key roles in crafting the bill said Birnbaum has her work cut out for her.
"It's welcome news that the Justice Department has finally named a special master -- but now the hard work really begins," New York Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Jerrold Nadler and Peter King said in a joint statement.
The measure reactivates the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund that operated from 2001 to 2003, expanding the pool of applicants to include first responders and other individuals who experienced latent physical injuries associated with the attacks or with debris removal.
Ken Feinberg, who ran the original victim fund, said Birnbaum faces a much more difficult challenge than he did because only first responders could file claims to the fund he administered and the government essentially handed him a blank check.
Feinberg said he expected Birnbaum would be up to the challenge.
"She's very creative," he said. "She's thought about these kinds of problems for her entire career."
Associated Press writer Pete Yost contributed to this report.