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44th Street Notes

Dealing with Disaster

Nov 1998

Wednesday, September 2, Swiss Air Flight lll, en route from JFK Airport to Geneva and carrying 215 passengers and a crew of 14, crashed into the waters off Nova Scotia, leaving no survivors. Within 24 hours, the Association had established a telephone hot line and assembled a response team of 11 members who were available to answer legal inquiries from stunned and grieving families. How were we able to react so quickly, and what does this experience tell us about the capacities of the Association and its members?

The Association’s immediate response this summer is directly traceable to a similar disaster two years ago. When TWA Flight 800 crashed off the coast of Long Island on July 17, l996, the Mayor’s Office asked the organized bar to provide preliminary legal advice to the families of crash victims, who were staying at the Ramada Inn at JFK. This Association and the New York State Bar Association formed a group of lawyers who made an oral presentation to the families on July 29 and distributed a brochure containing helpful general advice. The lawyers in that group undertook neither to solicit nor to accept representations of any of the family members. Their function was to give general guidance on such questions as whether and when to hire a lawyer, how to find a suitable lawyer and how to deal with unsolicited offers of representation.

In the aftermath of the TWA crash, the Association created an Ad Hoc Committee on Mass Disaster Planning, chaired by Sarah McShea. The Committee reviewed the recently enacted Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996 and the report of a White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security chaired by Vice-President Gore; it studied disaster response plans that had been adopted in other states; and it sought and received information and views from a range of governmental officials and the families of crash victims. In October 1997, the Committee issued a report and recommendations, together with two brochures, one addressed to response team members and the other to the families of crash victims.

Thus, we were prepared when we learned on the morning of September 3 of the Swiss Air crash the preceding evening. We immediately contacted the Mayor’s Office and offered to assist the families of crash victims as we had two years earlier. We called the State Bar to inform them of our plans and ascertained how they were preparing to respond. We contacted the Swiss Consulate and were told that it was prepared to advise the crash victim families on Swiss law issues (we had been prepared to enlist in our response team Swiss lawyers practicing in New York City). We revised and republished the brochures that had been prepared by the Ad Hoc Committee last fall. We initiated an Association hot line. And by 3:00 in the afternoon of September 3, the Legal Referral Service, which is co-sponsored by the Association and the New York County Lawyers?Association, had recruited 11 lawyers highly experienced in relevant areas of practice, such as tort litigation and insurance law.

As matters turned out, there was little need for our volunteer services, because Swiss Air had learned from the experience of TWA and promptly flew the families of crash victims to Halifax, where the search for bodies and wreckage of the plane was centralized. We, of course, had no way of knowing that our services would not be needed as much as they had been two years earlier. What is important is that we were mobilized within roughly six hours of learning of this tragedy.

What lessons can be drawn from this episode? I believe there are at least three. First, an association, like individuals, can and should learn from and build upon experience. If we had simply drawn satisfaction from the Association’s response to the TWA crash and not created a committee to plan for future mass disasters, we could not have responded to the Swiss Air disaster as rapidly and comprehensively as we did. A city as populous and crowded as New York City is constantly threatened with unanticipated calamities; think of the Happyland Social Club fire in the Bronx, the World Trade Center bombing and the scaffolding collapse at the Times Square construction site this summer. Not all disasters raise the same legal issues, but there are many issues that will normally arise in a catastrophic setting, and it is imperative that the private Bar be prepared to address them immediately and in a coordinated fashion. The Association has shown that it has that capacity.

Second, the Swiss Air crash afforded an occasion for Association members to demonstrate their willingness to volunteer their time and talents when called upon to respond to a public or private need for legal services. We sought volunteers for the disaster response team on the eve of a three-day holiday weekend, for which many if not most of the volunteers undoubtedly had made plans for rest and recreation before saying farewell to summer. And we exacted from the volunteers an undertaking not to solicit or accept any representation of crash victims?families, however qualified they might be to provide that representation. I want to thank publicly the following Association members for their unselfish willingness to respond to hot line inquiries: Norman Cousins, Pat Foley, Mel Ginsburg Bruce Green, Frank Harvey, Hal Lieberman, Jeff Korek, Jill Anne Kupferberg, Jay Sangerman, Ted Trief and Daryl Vernon. They have set an admirable example for other lawyers.

Finally, we were only able to mobilize a response team in a few hours because the Legal Referral Service maintains a list of 600 qualified attorneys, whose expertise ranges across 23 major legal areas and more than 100 subcategories. The Legal Referral Service fields more than 100,000 calls and makes more than 30,000 referrals a year, in addition to sponsoring educational activities such as brown bag lunch programs. The Service was awarded the ABA’s 1997 Outstanding Law Day Activity Award for sending a “Law-on-Wheels?van into several New York City neighborhoods, where volunteers provided consultations and distributed educational literature. In a metropolis as huge as New York City, many citizens do not know how to find a lawyer. For many years, the Legal Referral Service has met that need in exemplary fashion and served as a model for the establishment of lawyer referral services in other states. There is no public service rendered by the Association of which we are more proud.

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