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That means different sums for different families. In a TIME/CNN poll taken last month, 86% said all families should receive the same amount. But that's not how it's going to work.
The calculus has several steps, Feinberg explains. First, the government will estimate how much a victim would have earned over his or her lifetime had the planes never crashed. That means a broker's family will qualify for a vastly higher award than a window washer's family. To estimate this amount, each family was handed an easy-to-read chart on the way into the meeting: Find your loved one's age and income and follow your finger to the magic number. Note that the lifetime earnings have been boosted by a flat $250,000 for "pain and suffering"--noneconomic losses, they are called. Tack on an extra $50,000 in pain and suffering for a spouse and for each child. The charts, while functional, are brutal, crystallizing how readily the legal system commodifies life.
Then--and this is crucial--don't get too excited. That first number may be quite high--in the millions for many. But you must, according to the rules of the fund, subtract all the money you are getting from other sources except charities. A court settlement would not be diminished this way, but this is not a court, Feinberg repeatedly points out. Deduct life insurance, pension, Social Security death benefits and workers' compensation. Now you have the total award the government is offering you for your loss.
The deductions have the effect of equalizing the differences in the awards. Critics have called this Feinberg's "Robin Hood strategy." For many people in the room, the number is now at or close to zero. Feinberg says he will make sure no one gets zero. "Leave it to me," he says. But nowhere will that be written into the rules when they are finalized in mid-February. Likewise, many fiances and gay partners will be at the mercy of Feinberg's discretion in seeking awards. Before finding out exactly what they will get--and the rules are complex--families will have to agree never to sue anyone for the attacks. "Normally, that would be a difficult call," says Feinberg. "Not here. The right to sue in this case is simply not a reasonable alternative."
That's because Congress has capped the liability of the airlines, the airport owners, the aircraft manufacturers, the towers' landlord and the city of New York. In the name of the economy, the government severely restricted the victims' rights to sue--whether they join the fund or not. It is this lack of a viable option, even if they would not take it, that galls many families.