More than 1,600 people suing over their exposure to World Trade Center dust must decide by Jan. 2 whether to keep fighting in court, or drop their lawsuits and apply for benefits from a government fund.

U.S. lawmakers set aside $2.76 billion last winter to compensatepeople who developed illnesses after spending time at ground zero.But to be considered for the aid, all potential applicants must dismiss any pending lawsuits by the deadline and give up their right to sue forever. Anyone with a lawsuit still pending on Jan. 3 is barred from the program for life.

That has left some people with tough decisions. Most will have to choose without knowing how much money they might eventually receive under either option.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)