Toxic Justice

Lawyer Fred Baron says he's one of the good guys, fighting a war against evil asbestos manufacturers. But some former employees claim his firm is a factory that mass-produces lawsuits by implanting memories and inventing testimony.

To hear lawyers at the Dallas law firm of Baron & Budd tell it, they are frontline warriors in a battle against callous corporations whose product, asbestos, claimed the lives and health of thousands of working men.

But the first casualty of war is truth, and at Baron & Budd, one of the city's most successful law firms, the truth, if not killed outright, is sometimes missing in action.

Over the past four months, the Dallas Observer has reviewed hundreds of pages of leaked internal Baron & Budd documents and has interviewed clients, opposing lawyers, and current and former employees to reveal the inner workings of the firm created by Frederick Martin Baron. Some of those former employees claim--and the documents suggest--that Baron & Budd staff members invented testimony, encouraged witnesses to lie, and implanted memories in workers whose claims that they were harmed by asbestos are, in some cases, dubious.

A former lawyer, now critical of the ethics surrounding these practices, says that it's all done in the name of social justice, and that attorneys were encouraged to view their work as serving a higher cause. Today, Baron & Budd partners sometimes lapse into the language of a holy war and describe their opponents as "evil" and "not good people." In that jihad, say some former paralegals at the firm, just about anything goes.

The allegations concern one of the nation's most prominent plaintiffs' lawyers. Baron & Budd is a leader among a handful of firms filing the lion's share of asbestos lawsuits nationwide. According to one 4-year-old estimate, Baron & Budd has grossed more than $800 million from asbestos cases. Though Baron hotly disputes this figure, saying it is high by "hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions," clearly the lawsuits have made him a wealthy man.

Baron and his partners move in rarefied circles in the legal profession. In July, he was elected vice president of the American Trial Lawyers Association, the most influential group of plaintiffs' lawyers in the country. He's a past president of the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice and a member of several professional groups, among them the American Law Institute, a widely respected body of lawyers, judges, and legal scholars.

Baron's influence and ambitions are not limited to the law. In June, he was one of six co-hosts of a benefit for President Clinton that raised some $500,000, and late last month he played host to the president at his second home in Aspen, Colorado. In 1996 alone, his firm gave about $89,000 in so-called "soft money" to the Democratic Party; that figure does not include campaign contributions directly to candidates. He's been profiled in books, magazines, countless newspaper articles, and even featured prominently in a four-part series in The New Yorker.

As the New Yorker series pointed out, asbestos litigation--which it describes as "the greatest avalanche of toxic tort litigation in history"--was the result of scandalous corporate behavior. Manufacturers' disregard for the health of asbestos workers caused thousands of American workers to die prematurely and in the most gruesome manner imaginable. Some died of asbestosis, gasping to fill their scarred lungs with air, others from mesothelioma, a horribly painful cancer caused only by exposure to asbestos.

Yet what began 25 years ago as a crusade for justice for injured workers has transformed over time. Asbestos is no longer used commonly in the workplace, and a host of workplace reforms have been enacted. Many of the largest asbestos manufacturers are bankrupted by lawsuits, and after a quarter century, many of the seriously ill workers have died or received settlements. Yet the flood of cases continues, fueled by workers with less obvious signs of injury and a huge, profit-fueled, settlement-driven litigation industry.

Baron's firm is an example of the latter, grinding out claims against former asbestos manufacturers by the thousands. Their clients are mostly elderly blue-collar workers whose cases hinge in part on their abilities to sift through their memories and identify specific asbestos-containing products to which they were exposed.

To build its cases, former Baron & Budd employees and documents suggest, firm members have:

* Provided workers with sample questions and the "right" answers for their depositions, with little regard for whether the answers were true;

* Coached workers to say they were exposed to products that the workers can't identify by themselves and implanted memories in the minds of the firm's clients;

* Exaggerated the threat to some workers' health from asbestos exposure, employing what one former Baron & Budd paralegal described as "whore docs" willing to blame virtually any lung ailment and a whole host of cancers on asbestos exposure.

Fred Baron says that the documents supplied to the Observer are taken out of context, that the matters they touch upon are not important to asbestos litigation, and that his associates observe strict ethical and legal standards and counsel their clients to tell the truth. Coaching clients to give set answers to critical questions in their lawsuits is "absolutely" permissible, he says, and attorneys who fail to do so are guilty of malpractice. Indeed, of 12 former clients the Observer interviewed, none said he believed he was improperly coached.

In response to the allegations by former Baron & Budd employees, Baron and his partners say that as long as the firm doesn't literally tell anyone to lie, its lawyers are permitted to:

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