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.

Also like Terrell, Judy Bruton apparently sent part or all of her product-identification memo to clients. In a handwritten memo dated August 26, 1993, and addressed to several Baron & Budd attorneys, Bruton writes that she gives the attached "study sheet" to "all my clients who can read [and] ask them to be familiar [with] the information for their deposition." The attached two-page "study sheet" gives essential information on different types of asbestos products, from pipe covering to gaskets, and, most important, when each product might have released dust that the worker could have inhaled.

Baron says he is not particularly concerned about the danger of implanting product memories in his clients, who often are elderly and infirm.

"You know, I used to do DES cases. And what you are asking your client to remember is the size and shape and color of a pill that they might have taken 10 years ago. That's a hard recollection. [Diethyl-stilbestrol was a drug given to pregnant women from 1938-1971 to prevent miscarriages and other pregnancy problems. It was found to cause cancer and other illnesses.]

"Do we implant memories? Yeah, probably we do. Is that something that is wrong? I don't believe it is."

Blurring lines
"The first thing they give you is this book on the history of asbestos litigation," explains a former Baron & Budd attorney who spoke on condition that she not be named. "It...includes the evil deeds of the asbestos companies...and Fred's mentioned in the book."

Another book has pictures of men dying. They look like Holocaust victims, the attorney says.

"You get all worked up," she says. "You feel like you're working for a higher purpose. The lines start to blur, because you believe. It makes you not want to question what the paralegals are doing."

As she speaks, the lawyer unconsciously draws her knees up in a lawn chair outside a local Starbucks and hugs her ankles. It is a morning in late April, and she is nervous. She knows that her former employers would not approve of her talking to the press.

But she is also angry. She blames Baron & Budd for souring her on the practice of law, for creating what she describes as an atmosphere where attorneys and paralegals were not only taught that manufacturing testimony was their duty, but disciplined if the "proper" testimony was not obtained.

She says she lasted a few years.
"Slowly, you begin to question whether the means you are using to achieve the ends are legitimate. And if not, what is your involvement in that?" she says. "And you either leave or you accept it."

She still recalls one of the first depositions she ever defended at Baron & Budd by herself. "I knew my guy wasn't prepared to tell the lie," she says. "This gentleman did not know Kaylo [a product manufactured by an important defendant], had never seen pipe covering and never worked with it.

"It was on his work-history sheet. And for me not to get the testimony that some paralegal got...I'd have caught shit for that if that group went to trial.

"I pulled him out [of the deposition]," she says. "And I said, 'Could you just read off your work-history sheet?'...He goes, 'I don't know why it's on there. It shouldn't be on there. I don't remember it.'

"...And I was in fear and feeling totally inadequate and knowing that in getting what I needed to get, I was crossing the line." She got the identification. "And this was a good man," she recalls--though he wasn't particularly sick. Afterward, she ran home in tears and told a family member that she couldn't continue.

She got over it, she says, and goes on to explain how.
"They die breathless," she says of the sickest clients. "Literally, their lungs get so scarred that their air is restricted. And they choke to death. It's a horrific disease, which they knew the dangers of. The manufacturers, they absolutely knew.

"You see these people wheeled in, attached to oxygen tanks--and so what if they can't remember which of the labels they saw 30 years ago? The defendants...made something. They should pay. That's where you get confused."

But not all the workers she saw were so ill. By her estimate, "at least 50 percent" had no outward symptoms of illness, and that disturbed her.

For those workers who weren't obviously ill being deposed by opposing lawyers, one Baron & Budd-produced document has this bit of advice:

"If client says he doesn't like thinking about [getting cancer], get him to say the reason is because he is afraid of getting it, and it upsets him to think about it, but nevertheless, he does think about it."

This suggestion goes to the notion that workers can recover for emotional distress caused by their asbestos exposure.

Baron dismisses questions about whether clients should be coached to say they fear cancer. "Every client that you'll ever see says he is afraid of developing cancer," he says. "We want that on the record."

But the former Baron & Budd lawyer recalls it differently. She says the firm's lawsuit process was designed to exaggerate the fear of cancer in many clients who had little increased risk of cancer, because a scared client is an effective witness.

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