Environmental Law

Airlines and World Trade Center leaseholder don't have to pay cleanup costs for 9/11 attacks

An appellate court has upheld a decision shielding American Airlines, United Airlines and the World Trade Center leaseholder from paying environmental cleanup costs relating to the 9/11 attacks in New York City.

According to Reuters, a unanimous three-judge panel for the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the 9/11 attacks were an act of war, and under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act , the airlines and leaseholder were excused from having to pay cleanup costs stemming from them. Real estate developers Cedar & Washington Associates had originally sued in 2008 for compensation after cleaning up asbestos, fiberglass and other particles while renovating an apartment building near the World Trade Center site. In 2013, U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein of Manhattan ruled in favor of the airlines and leaseholder, citing CERCLA.

“The attacks wrested from the defendants all control over the planes and the buildings … and located sole responsibility for the event and the environmental consequences on fanatics whose acts the defendants were not bound by CERCLA to anticipate or prevent,” Judge Dennis Jacobs wrote in the court’s opinion (PDF).

The 2nd Circuit held that CERCLA’s general intent was to force perpetrators of environmental damage to pay for their actions; forcing the airlines and leaseholder to pay when they were the victims of the 9/11 hijackings didn’t make sense. The 2nd Circuit also held that the act of war exemption was not limited to instances where there was a formal declaration of war. Instead, the court pointed out that the federal government had clearly designated the attacks as an act of war.

Cohen Tauber Spievack & Wagner, which represented Cedar & Washington, did not respond to a request for comment by Reuters. The real estate developers had filed suit against the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Silverstein Properties, Host Hotels & Resorts, Westfield WTC and Westfield Corp., Consolidated Edison of NY, American Airlines and United Airlines. A spokesman for American Airlines told Reuters that the company was pleased with the result.

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