A U.S. District Court judge in New York ruled this week that American and United airlines must face trial over a $2.8 billion lawsuit the World Trade Center Properties LLC (WTCP) filed that alleges "negligence" allowed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 to happen.

Were it not for the airlines' slip-ups, "the terrorists could not have boarded and hijacked the aircraft and flown them into the twin towers," the company alleges in court documents (PDF).

WTCP initially sought $12.8 billion from the airlines, but the court limited the trial's claim to $2.8 billion to avoid bankrupting the airlines should they lose.

The company's owner, New York real estate mogul Larry Silverstein, obtained 99-year leases on the towers six weeks before the attacks of Sept. 11, paying $3.25 billion. Silverstein also purchased what court documents call "twelve-layer, multiple-company insurance coverage," set to pay out $3.5 billion "per occurrence" in the event of a terrorist attack. He's since become the focus of numerous conspiracy theories about the attacks, but has never faced any serious criminal allegations or inquiry.

In addition to suing the airlines in 2004, WTCP sued its insurers shortly after the attacks, arguing the tragic day constituted two occurrences instead of one. The parties ultimately settled for just over $4 billion.

The airlines and even aircraft-maker Boeing have faced similar lawsuits before, but none nearly as large as WTCP's. Not even the first responders or survivors of the attacks held as much leverage as Silverstein, with injury claims against the 9/11 victims compensation fund created by Congress paying out about $400,000 on average, and death claims resulting in about $2 million per family. The Bush administration shut that fund down in 2003, but President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats reactivated it in 2010, despite a unanimous Republican attempt to kill the bill.

In denying the airlines' request for dismissal this week, U.S. District Court Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein explained that the defense's claims must be verified with "reasonable certainty," as required by law. Therefore, the case will move to trial to allow for evidence discovery and a more thorough accounting of facts.


Photo: Flickr user 9/11 photos, creative commons licensed.