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POL COLUMNS « How to demonize a judge in twelve steps | Trouble from Paradise: Hawaii's Divisive Racial Politics Hits the National Agenda »

January 6, 2006


Shredding common sense

By Ralph R. Reiland

The bombing of the World Trade Center, on Feb. 26, 1993, was the most destructive terrorist attack on U.S. soil up until that time. Planted in a rental van, a 1,500-pound, urea-nitrate bomb exploded in the parking garage beneath the World Trade Center complex, creating a crater 200 feet across and seven stories deep.

The blast killed six people, injured nearly 1,000, and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage and business interruptions. It could have been worse. "If the van had been parked a few feet closer to one of the pillars," writes James Bovard, a policy analyst for The Future of Freedom Foundation, "it could have collapsed an entire tower of the Trade Center, killing tens of thousands."

In fact, the terrorists' plan was designed to topple New York City's tallest tower onto its twin, creating maximum havoc during a busy workday with perhaps as many as 50,000 people being killed and a cloud of cyanide gas chasing the survivors through the streets of Manhattan.

Now, after a dozen years of legal maneuvering, a jury in the state Supreme Court of New York has taken the terrorists off the hook for the majority of the blame in their 1993 attack. On Oct. 26, unanimously, the jury said the guys who carried out the bombing were only 32 percent responsible for the damages.

The majority wrongdoer, 68 percent at fault for the death and destruction, said the jury, was the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the then-owner of the World Trade Center—which means that the party with the deepest pockets is getting the bill, which means that the taxpayers of New York and New Jersey will be picking up the tab for most of the losses.

On the day of the 1993 blast, Mario Cuomo, New York's governor at the time, told journalists: "We all have that feeling of being violated. No foreign people or force has ever done this to us. Until now, we were invulnerable."

Today, playing Monday-morning quarterback more than a decade after the attack, the New York jury has said the Port Authority "should have known" an attack was coming, even if, as Cuomo said, nothing like that had ever happened before. Further, the Port Authority "should have known" to shut down the garage to the public, and to its upstairs tenants, even if, as Cuomo said, no one had felt vulnerable before to a foreign force in the center of Manhattan.

Because the jury apportioned more than half the liability to the Port Authority, the plaintiffs' principal lawyer, David Dean, said the agency will have to pay 100 percent of any damages for pain and suffering that might be awarded, so-called non-economic damages, as well as 100 percent of any economic damages, such as lost business. As it currently stands, explained Dean, lawyers for the plaintiffs are seeking an estimated $1.8 billion in alleged damages.

Being perfectly efficient, of course, the managers of the Port Authority could have been flawless fortune tellers—better than the CIA, NSA and FBI—and closed the garage. But then the terrorists might have gone the route of exploding anthrax bombs in the lobby, or crashing jets into the upper floors.

In similar blame-shifting news from England, Carl Murphy, 18, was recently awarded a payout of $1.1 million in a liability suit for injuries suffered nine years ago when he fell through the roof of a warehouse in Bottle, near Liverpool. Some newspapers reported only that Murphy "had been trespassing" while others added that he "fell through a skylight while trying to break into the warehouse."

Either way, Murphy's lawyer successfully argued that the fence surrounding the warehouse wasn't in full repair, thereby permitting a too-easy entry to the property.

Boasting about his newfound wealth to the press, Murphy, who has 17 metal plates in his head as a result of the fall as well as prior convictions for burglary, robbery and assault, said he is going to buy "a few houses and a flash car" and was unconcerned about the negative responses from the public.

"I'm going to buy a big house so I have a place to live with me mum when she gets out of jail," he explained. Mum is behind bars for selling crack and heroin.

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Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise at Robert Morris University and a columnist with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Reprinted by permission from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, where this column originally ran on December 5, 2005.

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Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.