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032311feinberg

How much does tragedy cost?

3:27 PM  Mar 23rd, 2011
by Emanuel Cavallaro '07

Unprecedented tragedies are his niche.

Attorney Kenneth Feinberg has overseen the $7 billion September 11th Victim Compensation Fund bankrolled by the U.S. government, and the privately raised $8 million for the victims of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. He’s currently managing the $20-billion claims fund for damages resulting from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Feinberg, dubbed the “Master of Disasters” by the ABA Journal, has been handling 750,000 claims related to the oil spill. So far, he has paid $3.6 billion to about 200,000 people in seven months.

“Nobody’s happy,” Feinberg admitted during a public talk March 22 at the School of Law’s Heck Courtroom in Keller Hall. “Everybody in the Gulf says I’m too cheap…and BP files a brief saying I’m way too generous… I must be doing something right.”

Feinberg stressed that mass settlements are an unconventional method of avoiding costly, time-consuming litigation, and should be used very rarely.

“You may think that (calculating damage) is a law school tort problem; it’s a very practical problem,” he said. “Bad things happen to good people every day in this country.”

“Pay me. Pay me, Pay me,” Feinberg said, repeating the demand of claimants as he gave examples of claims from people like hotel owners seeking compensation for the loss of business caused not by the oil spill itself, but by media coverage of it.

“Are these programs sound public policy?” Feinberg said. “I think they are. But just make sure you can maintain a healthy degree of skepticism…”

Following his remarks, Feinberg fielded questions from a panel that included Dean Lisa Kloppenberg and Jay Folberg, former dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law. Folberg asked about the victims of the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

“The nuclear industry in Japan over the last 30 years has paid in to a fund that probably now is $4 billion,” Feinberg ventured. “It’ll probably cost five or 10 times that to pay all the citizens’ claims. Once that is exhausted, the government steps in to pay the difference.”

At the end of the talk, Feinberg signed copies of his 2005 book, “What is Life Worth? The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11.”

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