Before the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals who passed away as a result of a 9/11-related health condition could be expected to receive death certificates that listed the 9/11-related health condition as the cause of death. But the pandemic has introduced a new wrinkle into death certificates: What happens when COVID-19 is listed as the cause of death rather than the 9/11-related health condition? And what happens in situations where the COVID-19 death was arguably a consequence of the underlying 9/11-related health condition? Can those claimants still be eligible to receive benefits through the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund (VCF)? Our 9/11 victims lawyers discuss the issues below.
How the VCF Interprets Death Certificates
The VCF addressed this very issue in guidance issued on September 9., 2020. To be eligible for compensation, the victim must have suffered physical harm or death due to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 or exposure to the toxins released in their aftermath. To determine this, the VCF looks at the victim’s death certificate to determine whether the cause of death is listed as a covered 9/11-related health condition by the WTC Health Program.
Standard death certificates include three separate categories in which causes can be listed:
- The immediate cause of death,
- The underlying causes of death (i.e., health conditions that the cause of death was due to or a result of), and
- The significant conditions contributing to death
The VCF considers a claimant eligible for benefits so long as a covered 9/11-related health condition is listed in any of those three categories. For example, if the immediate cause of death is listed as COVID-19, but the underlying cause of death is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) — a covered 9/11-related health condition — the claimant would be eligible for benefits. If an eligible condition is not listed on the death certificate, the VCF will accept additional medical evidence that establishes a connection and demonstrates how the covered condition contributed to or resulted in the death.
COVID-19 in the 9/11 Community
The situations described above are not uncommon among COVID-19 patients in the 9/11 community. Comprehensive data are sparse, but it is generally understood that 9/11 survivors and responders are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 or suffering severe complications from it than the general population.
This is because the virus affects several groups of people more severely than others, including older individuals and individuals suffering certain underlying conditions — particularly cancer and respiratory diseases. Over 60% of WTC Health Program enrollees are over the age of 55, and cancer and respiratory diseases are some of the most common conditions among 9/11 survivors and responders, putting them at significantly increased risk when it comes to COVID-19.
Contact Our 9/11 Victims Lawyers for Help with COVID-19-Affected VCF Claims
Generally, a cause of death listed as “COVID-19” will not preclude a VCF wrongful death claim so long as the 9/11-related condition is also listed on the death certificate. For more information about COVID-19-affected VCF claims, please contact the 911 victims lawyers at Pitta & Baione by using our online contact form or by calling us at 212-658-1766.