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Congress plans fund for victims' families

President Bush addresses Congress, September 20, 2001
On the day after President Bush's address to Congress, lawmakers on Capitol Hill debated compensation plans for victims and their survivors.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In the fine print of an airline industry relief package that Congress is debating are details about compensation for victims of the September 11 attacks.

Complex formulas are still being hammered out, but there is a general outline of what families can expect.

Under the legislation being considered, those on the ground at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon who were injured, along with the families of those killed, would have two options: They could forgo the right to sue the airlines and instead draw on a government fund for compensation, or they could sue.

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If they opt into the government fund, the amount of money they eventually receive would be determined by a "special master" appointed by Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The special master would decide what would be fair compensation and move quickly to pay it. Congress would not limit how much the special master could pay out.

If victims sue in court, there would be pre-determined limits on how much money they could receive.

"They can choose one way or another," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, "but there is a limited amount of money, a pot of money, [for those who] sue to get any relief."

The "pot of money" available to those who file lawsuits in court would likely equal the amount of insurance coverage carried by American Airlines and United Airlines when the attacks occurred.

There are advantages and disadvantages to choosing either the victims fund or going to court, congressional aides explained.

Families that opted not to sue could avoid a potentially long trial and an uncertain outcome. But there would be a formula used to determine how much a victim would receive, based on that person's income and possibly on the amount of insurance the victim carried.

Going to court would be risky, but victims could end up receiving more money if a jury is sympathetic. On the other hand, a jury trial could take a long time and the airlines could be bankrupt -- or at least out of insurance money -- by the time a trial ended, according to congressional aides.

Hastert described the approach being taken by Congress as a tradeoff.

"What we're trying to do is lift the airlines out of that liability issue so they can get insurance, they can go fly, they can do their work. And we're afraid they couldn't get insurance unless we intervened."

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• American Red Cross

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