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N.Y. / Region

Blame for 1993 Attack at Center Is Still at Issue

Published: January 10, 2008

One of the most painful parts has been the wait, a lawyer for victims of the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center told an appeals court on Wednesday.

Next month will be the 15th anniversary of the Feb. 26, 1993, terrorist strike in the trade center’s underground garage, an event that has almost been forgotten in the glare of the attack that brought down the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

It was only two years ago, though, that its victims won a major victory, when a Manhattan jury found that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owned the trade center, was more to blame for the bombing than the terrorists.

On Wednesday both sides were back in court as the case continued to wind its way through the judicial system.

This time, in the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Manhattan, the authority asked a five-judge panel to throw out what it called the jury’s “bizarre” verdict declaring that the agency was 68 percent responsible for the bombing and the terrorists bore only 32 percent of the responsibility.

This was the sixth appeal in the case, one of the victims’ lawyers, Victor A. Kovner, told the judges’ panel, and “the fourth time I personally am before the court.” In nearly 15 years, he said, “there hasn’t been a single damages trial” to determine how much the victims should receive for the pain and suffering they endured and for their financial losses.

The appellate judges seemed to share Mr. Kovner’s sense of urgency, as they peppered lawyers on both sides of the dispute with questions.

One of them asked the authority’s lawyer, John J. Gibbons: If the authority was not 68 percent to blame for the bombing, then “what percentage would you think would be supported by the evidence?”

Mr. Gibbons declined to be specific, saying only that he considered the Port Authority a victim too and that the percentage should be 50 percent or less.

The 50 percent figure is important because if the authority is more than 50 percent liable for the attack, then it must pay 100 percent of any damages for pain and suffering, the victims’ lawyers said later. The authority is responsible for financial damages regardless of how the blame is apportioned, the lawyers said.

In the 1993 attack, Islamic terrorists drove a rented Ryder van packed with explosives into the trade center’s underground garage, set a 10-minute fuse and left. The blast killed six people and injured 1,000.

Originally, hundreds of people and companies sued. By early 2005, many still had lawsuits, while others had dropped out or settled. Victims’ lawyers said yesterday that there were 47 cases remaining, including 43 personal injury cases.

Among the victims still fighting is Linda P. Nash. Ms. Nash, a former management consultant now in her 60s, was in the garage when the bomb went off and has not been able to work since because of short-term memory disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder prompted by the attack, her lawyer, Louis A. Mangone, said.

At the trial, the plaintiffs focused on a 1985 report commissioned by the Port Authority, warning that the underground garage was vulnerable to a car bombing and recommending that it be closed to public parking.

“Wasn’t there evidence that the Port Authority had been warned by its own experts?” one of the appellate judges asked on Wednesday.

“No,” Mr. Gibbons said, adding that none of the reports “suggested that a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center was likely.”

One judge asked if it was true that there was only one police officer patrolling the garage. “At times,” Mr. Gibbons conceded.

In its court papers, the authority compared its position to that of a subway token booth clerk who falls asleep while a passenger is attacked, but who is not as much to blame as the attacker himself.

But Brian Shoot, another of the victims’ lawyers present in court, told the judges that the token clerk analogy was flawed. The decision to leave the garage open to the public, despite recommendations to the contrary, was made by “the highest ranking members of the Port Authority,” he said, and not by a clerk.

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