Victim compensation: different visions for different victims
This month’s deadline for filing claims with the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund (the “Fund”), has caused me to review how victim compensation has evolved since Congress created the Fund in 2001, in response to the World Trade Center attacks. The Fund responded to widespread sympathy toward survivors and surviving family members, and provided compensation for economic and non-economic losses resulting from the attacks, in return for waiver of the right to sue for damages. By 2004, when the original Fund closed, it had paid over $7.049 billion (in public funds) to survivors of those who died in the attacks and to those who were injured in the attacks or the subsequent rescue efforts. In 2011, Congress reactivated the Fund and expanded its scope to cover additional injured persons and to provide medical treatment and monitoring for 9/11-related health conditions.
The combination of government-supported and philanthropic resources available to survivors of the 9/11 contrasts sharply with the resources available to survivors of other crimes. Every state operates victim compensation programs, which reimburse victims of violent crimes for out of pocket expenses, such as medical expenses, counseling costs, funeral or burial expenses and lost wages or support. Maximum awards generally range from $10,000-$25,000. Unlike the 9/11 Fund, state crime victim compensation programs are funded nearly entirely from a pool of defendants’ fines and fees; they draw on virtually no taxpayer funds. As I have previously described, programs are inadequately publicized, and often maintain eligibility requirements that restrict access. Yet, domestic and sexual violence have marked economic effects; in addition to out of pocket expenses, economic ramifications drive victims’ options and strategies. Programs and services receive decreasing funding while demands for services increase.
Recently, incidents of mass violence have given rise to new, albeit private, compensation schemes, notably, The One Fund, to serve victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and the Sandy Hook Victim Compensation Fund, for victims of the Newtown-Sandy Hook school shooting. Both programs make philanthropic funds available for survivors and for victims’ families.
No doubt, there are manifold differences between the events giving rise to these respective compensation schemes and the structure of the schemes themselves. But the outpouring of public sympathy for victims of these mass, public acts of violence, and the emergence of funding programs for particular groups of victims, is hard to square with the public’s approach to other victims of crimes. The difference in rhetoric and support raise questions and concerns about whether the emerging scheme creates dual tracks, with accompanying notions of deserving versus undeserving victims. Extending the compassion that provided the impetus for the 9/11 Fund and for the funds serving recent victims of mass violence, could go a long way to promoting healing, safety and community.