Up In The Old Hotel

What will one elderly Woodstock resident do with the insurance windfall from a Times Square construction accident? Buy a hot plate.

To protect Meinecke and his neighbors from their own spending habits, as well as predators, the proceeds from the lawsuit have been placed in a pooled trust that is only the third of its kind in the state, according to attorney Michael Barasch. Anytime a member of the fund wants to make a withdrawal, the expenditure has to be approved by the Woodstock's managing agency, Project FIND. (The nonprofit group has become so adamant about protecting Woodstock residents from exploitation in the wake of the construction accident that its executive director, Cynthia Dial, refused to comment at all or make any clients available to talk about their experience.) The trust also benefits its members by keeping the settlement money out of the tenants' personal bank accounts, so they are still eligible for their Medicaid and Social Security benefits.

Settling the cases was actually easy, Barasch remarks, compared to "trying to protect them from the sharks out there." He recalls how the insurance companies had sent "two people at a time up to the rooms saying, 'You'll never get any money, don't sign up with the lawyer,"' and offering the Woodstock tenants $1200 in cash. Liberty Mutual, the developer's primary insurer before its policy ran out, had similarly tried to press Woodstock residents into giving up their rights to sue. In the days following the crane collapse, Liberty Mutual agents offered the stunned evacuees anywhere from $100 to $200 in emergency cash to replace glasses or pills or shoes. As they were handed the money, they were also presented with a legal waiver. More than 20 residents signed the forms before one suspicious tenant contacted Betsy Kane, director of the West Side SRO Law Project. It was Kane who intervened on their behalf, warding off the Boston-based insurance giant with a stern letter and several phone calls. After that, Kane— the tenants' unsung hero— called the bar association, which in turn contacted Barasch & McGarry and Salzman and Salzman of Brooklyn and set up a meeting between those lawyers and the Woodstock tenants. All seemed amazed and gratified by the outcome, "especially when originally they were going to get $100 for a new pair of shoes," Kane says.

When scaffolding fell onto the Woodstock's roof last July, a tenant was killed.
Michael Sofronski
When scaffolding fell onto the Woodstock's roof last July, a tenant was killed.

Meinecke, an obviously irascible personality, was mildly disappointed to miss his day in court. But he looks forward to drinking hot coffee again and is clearly relieved to be back at the Woodstock, where he spends his days dozing and his nights listening to the radio. The path from his reclining chair to the bathroom to his bed is user-friendly after all these years; his temporary digs at the Times Square Hotel had had even less room to move around in. "When I don't know how to do it," he says, "I'm lost."

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