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Law firm in 9/11 suits defends mistakes

NEW YORK — The lead lawyer for thousands of Sept. 11 rescue and recovery workers has acknowledged that in preparing some claims, his firm made mistakes — including assertions that people had cancer when they didn't.

But the attorney, Paul Napoli, said the errors all occurred at preliminary stages of the case, are being corrected and won't have any bearing on the outcome. He characterized the mistakes as few and accidental, caused by a crushing workload and a rush to meet court deadlines.

"We are not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes," Napoli said in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday.

Napoli's firm, Worby Groner Edelman & Napoli Bern, is coordinating lawsuits filed by more than 9,000 police officers, firefighters and construction workers who say New York City and its contractors failed to protect them from toxic World Trade Center ash.

The AP reported Sunday that some of the first cases headed toward trial in the long legal battle contained inconsistent or exaggerated information about worker health problems or the time they spent at ground zero.

One of the cases examined by the AP involved a New York City police sergeant who sued over breathing difficulties but was later incorrectly listed by her legal team as having lung cancer.

Another police officer from northern New Jersey was listed in a court filing as having worked 300 days at ground zero, when work records suggested that any time he spent at the site was more limited.

After the story ran, the head of an association of retired fire department medics told the AP the firm had also misclassified her illness, and the illnesses of other workers, because of sloppy record keeping.

Marianne Pizzitola, the president of the FDNY EMS Retirees Association, said she developed a mild respiratory ailment because of her work at ground zero, but the law firm asked her to sign legal papers saying she has brain and blood cancers. She said other association members had come forward with similar complaints.

Napoli criticized the AP's report as "nitpicking."

He said some of the information given to the court early on in the case was "filed in a rush" to beat tight deadlines.

"Are there some mistakes? Yes. But whenever anyone does everything, there are mistakes," he said.

One of Napoli's partners, William Groner, said the firm has hired teams of nurses and spent millions of dollars verifying medical records.

"I'm extremely confident that the overwhelming amount of data that has been provided to the court is accurate," he said. "However, we have numerous procedures in place to ensure that inaccuracies are found and corrected as soon as possible."

The firm has spent years collecting medical files and entering the information into a database the court is using to categorize plaintiffs and manage the case.

Simultaneously, the team is trying to negotiate a settlement and prepare for trials set to start in May.

The accuracy of the firm's records on client injuries could wind up playing a major part in any settlement, as it would likely help determine how much each plaintiff gets paid.

Pizzitola, whose association has about 120 members, said she worries that any errors in those files could either derail legitimate claims or be misinterpreted by the public as emergency responders lying about their illnesses.

"I don't want that to be the perception," she said. "I don't think it's the people. I think it's the firm. I think they are overworked and understaffed."

She said her lawyers ultimately corrected her records, but only after she threatened to drop out of the suit. Months after her first complaint, she said she logged on to a database maintained by the firm and found it still listed her as having cancer.

"I was furious," she said of the ordeal, adding that the false cancer diagnosis wasn't the only mistake in her file. "They had me seeing doctors I don't even know."

Ray Simons, an EMT who retired after he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, said the firm asked him to sign a case history that said he had liver cancer. Simons, 59, said he has liver cysts, but they are not cancerous.

"To make the leap immediately to cancer is ridiculous," he said

Napoli said both those instances actually show a strength in the law firm's system.

"We are sending the stuff and asking, Is this correct? That's the whole reason we do it," he said.

"When clients say, you've got this wrong, that's a good thing," he added.

It ensures, he said, that the evidence ultimately provided to the court is accurate when it matters most: at settlement or trial. Everything up to that point, he said, is just "part of the process."