Summer 2013

Fighting for first-responders

Lawyer helps 10,000 made ill by 9/11 cleanup

Feature Image
Phillip Ennis
William H. Groner '77 launched the first Casino-in-the-Woods gala, which continues to raise money for local nonprofit organizations.

About 2,600 people perished in the conflagration and collapse of Manhattan’s iconic Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001. The ensuing cleanup created 10,000 more victims among those who dug down through the smoldering, dust-filled pile at Ground Zero to unearth the remains of those who died and clear the site so the gleaming One World Trade Center could rise anew.

Personal injury attorney William H. Groner ’77 spent nine years representing the first-responders, construction workers and volunteers who reported to the pile, day after day, month after month. They labored without equipment to protect them from the dust particles that were laced with a toxic blend of compounds that burrowed deep into their bodies, leading to illnesses including respiratory ailments, cancers and gastrointestinal disorders.

Congress in 2003 authorized a $1 billion insurance fund to compensate those who fell ill. But it took almost a decade for Groner’s team to nail down the landmark settlement of $800 million. While several law firms filed notices that they intended to move forward with litigation, Groner’s White Plains firm, Worby Groner Edelman LLP, eventually represented almost all of those injured. Groner led the team on a precarious legal journey, with the promise of payment only if they prevailed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

“We were the only ones with the foresight — or perhaps, foolishness — to bring the action,” Groner says over tea in his kitchen, overlooking a stand of cherry trees. “We were feeling good about ourselves as lawyers. On a gut level, we knew these people had the injuries from the exposures on the pile. We thought we could win. But we had a certain ignorance about what we were up against.”

Obstacles included a defense team that rang up $200 million in billings to fight the claims on behalf of New York City and the Ground Zero contractors; new disease patterns caused by the synergistic effects of Ground Zero’s brew of contaminants; and a probing press that put the legal strategy of Groner’s team under scrutiny on front pages around the world.

“I’m not sure we’d have done it if we knew what we now know,” says Groner, 58.

Groner’s team included scores of clerks, medical personnel and computer programmers who helped document the medical histories of the 10,000 plaintiffs in a sprawling database. When the settlement was finally signed, it provided a system that scored each client and helped allocate damage awards that ranged from a few thousand dollars to more than $1 million.

“As a lawyer, you don’t often get a chance to be creative,” says Groner, who lives in Bedford, N.Y., with wife Sue; son Hudson, 13; and daughter Victoria, 16. “In a trial, you are casting the story, writing the scripts. And here we were trying to solve the puzzle, with the world watching.”

Groner recalls the conference call he led with 20 attorneys while vacationing in Telluride, Colo., during the December holidays in 2009. Like a good personal injury lawyer, his opening demand was $7 billion in damages for his clients. The final settlement was substantial: about $800 million.

“After we negotiated the point, I hung up the phone, sat back and cried,” Groner recalls. “It was almost over.”

Unafraid of risk

For Groner, the settlement capped a legal career launched in 1980 after graduation from Boston University Law School. The son of a Chevrolet car salesman and a part-time bookkeeper, Groner was uncertain of his future when he arrived in Binghamton in 1973. He majored in psychology and emerged as a campus leader. President of Cayuga Hall, president and goaltender for the hockey club, Groner also served as social affairs chairman at College-in-the-Woods. There, he launched the first Casino-in-the-Woods gala, which lives on as a fundraising event for local nonprofit organizations. 

“The casino night was my baby,” says Groner, who was the Commencement speaker at College-in-the-Woods in 2008 and, this spring, was elected to the Alumni Association Board of Directors. “I’m so honored that the money raised at the event now goes to charity.”

Groner began his legal career in New York City, working in a personal injury firm where the lead partner quickly detected his sharp courtroom skills. Before long, Groner was selecting juries and taking cases to trial if they didn’t settle. Over three years, he selected 60 juries and had 25 cases go to verdict.

But working as a law-firm associate began to rankle. One day, he ran into attorney Larry Hollander ’78, whom he’d known at Binghamton, on the subway platform. Hollander had a similar beef. So they formed a partnership, Hollander & Groner LLP, in 1985. A decade later, Groner moved to the suburbs, where he could ply his trade and raise his children in the sylvan hills of Westchester County.

Groner formed one Westchester firm and later merged with another led by David Worby and Michael Edelman, two well-established White Plains attorneys. Edelman says Groner was the right man for the 9/11 case.

“Bill is meticulous, and leaves no base uncovered,” he says. “He has patience, a tremendous work ethic, and totally immerses himself in the subject matter. He gets to know it inside and out. He takes no short cuts.”

One case becomes 10,000

The 9/11 case proved the ultimate challenge. Groner became involved in 2003, after a New York City police detective, suffering from a rare form of leukemia, approached his firm, wondering if its attorneys could prove that his ailment was caused by his months on the pile. Groner’s research found that exposure to benzene, a component of jet fuel, was linked to the disease.

The firm took the detective’s case. And soon word spread throughout the legal community — and the police and firefighter unions — that Worby Groner Edelman was the firm with the best chance for success. Before long, the firm had 10,000 clients — with different diagnoses and different amounts of time working at the site.

Groner subsequently discovered that the contractors had created a safety plan, but didn’t enforce it.

“There was no culture of protection,” Groner says. “That would have slowed the recovery. The philosophy was to do it quickly. But they ended up sacrificing the guys who worked there. Then they spent $200 million to defeat us. I had really angry clients.”

Glenn Radalinsky, a former Nassau County police officer who suffered respiratory and digestive tract illnesses related to his exposure at Ground Zero, says Groner was accessible to him, despite the fact that he was one among 10,000 plaintiffs.

“If you had a question, he was available and would answer it,” says Radalinksy, who became ill in 2006 and retired on disability in 2011. “We struck up a rapport. And I didn’t feel like a number.”

Ground Zero cases continue

The settlement did not end Groner’s involvement at Ground Zero. He represents about 1,000 workers sickened after cleaning up the dust that contaminated office buildings and residences adjacent to the site. He’s also representing downtown residents with claims under a federal law that provides compensation to anyone who can prove their illness was related to the dust exposure.

As those cases progress, he’s looking for new opportunities for professional and personal growth. Last fall, he was a guest lecturer at Boston University Law School, which examined in detail the Ground Zero litigation. In September he’ll teach a course there. He hikes in the summer and skis in the winter. He’s also looking to give back to the community through personal philanthropy.

“My parents are 92 and 94, so I’ve got at least 30 years left,” he says. “That’s a lot of time. I have the time, the energy and the interest, and I’ve never been stronger mentally and physically. Instead of playing golf and riding off into the sunset, I’d like to make a difference.”