Framing the Choice Between Cash and the Courthouse: Experiences With the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund


  • This work would not have been possible without the extraordinary contributions of the many 9/11 victims, family members, and lawyers who were willing to speak with me either directly or through the survey instrument and e-mails. I am grateful to them for sharing their experiences with me. I am especially grateful to those people who in addition to sharing their own stories were willing to help me connect with potential participants for this study without intruding on individuals' privacy. Ron Robinson played an important role in spurring this research in connection with the work of the Defense Research Institute on the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act. In the academic world I have benefited from comments and advice from many colleagues, notably Dan Ryan, Erica Goode, Bob Kagan, Dan Klerman, Lewis Kornhauser, Bob Mnookin, Bob Rabin, Judith Resnik, Steve Sugarman, Carroll Seron, and three anonymous referees and participants at workshops at USC, the New York Law and Society Colloquium, Stanford, Harvard, the Law and Society Association, the Conference on Empirical Legal Studies, UC Berkeley, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, where I was a fellow in 2006–2007. Financial and institutional support were generously provided by the Center for Advanced Study, the Mellon Foundation, and USC Law School. Esther Choi provided superb research assistance.

Please address correspondence to Gillian K. Hadfield, University of Southern California, 699 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90089; e-mail:


In this article I report the results of a quantitative and qualitative empirical study of how those who were injured or lost a family member in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks evaluated the tradeoff between a cash payment—available through the Victim Compensation Fund—and the pursuit of litigation. Responses make it clear that potential plaintiffs saw much more at stake than monetary compensation and that the choice to forego litigation required the sacrifice of important nonmonetary, civic values: obtaining and publicizing information about what happened, prompting public findings of accountability for those responsible, and participating in the process of ensuring that there would be responsive change to what was learned about how the attacks and deaths happened. The results shed light on the framing component of the transformation of disputes, and in particular on how potential litigants see the decision to sue, or not, as a decision as much or more about how they understand their relationship to their community and their responsibilities as a citizen as how they evaluate monetary considerations.