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Kenneth Feinberg, 'Master of Disaster', Discusses Victim Compensation Funds with Oasis

Kenneth FeinbergBethesda resident Kenneth Feinberg has been called the “master of disaster” and the “compensation czar.” He is the attorney who is often called in to administer victim compensation funds. He has worked on several of the highest-profile tragedies of the millennium, including administering funds following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks; the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster; the Pulse nightclub shooting; the Boston Marathon bombing; the Virginia Tech shootings; and, most recently, the Las Vegas concert massacre.

He recently spoke to an Oasis class at the Johns Hopkins University Montgomery County Campus about his work, and he answered questions from Hopkins Happenings.

During the class, Feinberg talked about many of the challenges he faces in administering victim compensation funds. During the BP oil disaster, for example, he received claims from all 50 states, even though the damage was most acutely felt along the Gulf Coast. “I didn’t know the oil got to Maryland!” he said. “Build the compensation programs, and they will come.”

On a more serious note, Feinberg discussed the emotional toll his work can take. Everyone affected by a disaster in which he is administering a fund has an opportunity to meet with him. Many people simply send in the claim form. Others meet with him in person and talk to him about God, the unfairness of life and their anger. Some have shown him videos of their deceased loved ones. He recalled an incident where he listened to a saved voice mail of someone trapped in the World Trade Center, saying goodbye to her husband.

Feinberg also discussed issues of fairness. In some cases, families of deceased victims get a set amount of money, and then he comes up with a formula to determine how to allocate money to the injured based in large part on how many days they spent in a hospital. But that gets tricky too, he said, as those who suffered mental anguish want compensation as well. And sometimes people didn’t spend time in a hospital but sought outpatient treatment.

Feinberg discussed how impressed he is that the American public regularly contributes to funds following disasters.

“Never underestimate the charitable impulse of the American people,” Feinberg said, citing the tens of millions raised following many horrific events. “It is astounding to me. It’s part of our DNA in America.”

Here is a Q&A Feinberg did with Hopkins Happenings, where he further explores these topics:

Hopkins Happenings: How did you get into your line of work? Originally, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Feinberg: I originally thought I would be an actor in my youth. My father suggested instead that I attend law school and become an actor in the courtroom.  I agreed with his advice. In 1984, Judge Jack B. Weinstein of the Federal Court in New York City asked me to mediate the Agent Orange Herbicide Litigation brought by Vietnam Veterans against the chemical industry. When that litigation settled on the eve of trial, my legal career was set. 

Hopkins Happenings: What high-profile cases are you currently involved with?
Feinberg: I am attempting to resolve about 800 sexual abuse cases in New York State brought against the Catholic Church.  I am also the court-appointed mediator in the Fiat/Chrysler automobile emissions case pending in San Francisco Federal Court. 

Hopkins Happenings: Do you enjoy your work?
Feinberg: I don’t “enjoy” the work but recognize it serves the public interest.  When you are asked by the president, governor or mayor, you do so in the public interest as a member of society. 

Hopkins Happenings: How do you respond when people ask you how you put a price tag on a life? A limb?
Feinberg: Every day in every courtroom throughout the nation, judges and juries place a value on life, death and physical injury.  I do the same thing acting as judge and jury.  It is not particularly difficult to calculate what a physically injured or decedent would have earned over a lifetime but for the tragedy.  Also, add an additional amount for pain and suffering and emotional distress.  This is done all the time.  The most difficult part of what I do is the emotion when I meet with individual victims and/or their families to discuss all of this.  Very debilitating.  I am a professional but, unless you have a heart of stone, you cannot help but be impacted by the emotion.  I must take frequent recesses from my work to clear my head and try and be as objective as possible.  Very, very difficult.  But I have been asked to perform a public service so I remains as objective as humanly possible.

OASIS is a non-profit educational organization active in more than 50 cities and reaching more than 50,000 individuals each year. Its mission is to promote healthy aging through lifelong learning, active lifestyles and volunteer engagement. Locally, the Oasis center is located inside of Macy’s Home Store at Westfield Montgomery Mall and is sponsored by Suburban Hospital. Classes are held at the main center as well as in other locations throughout the county, including at the JHU Montgomery County Campus. Students may sign up for one or more classes, most of which are one-time lectures.  Class topics include offerings in art, music, computers, health and wellness, history and current events.


CATEGORY: In The Community