By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
She found this incredibly cruel.
"I would tell my clients after the deposition that they have a higher likelihood of being hit by a bus than being killed by asbestosis," she recalls. They would hug her and say thanks.
By the time her clients came in for their depositions, their cases had been on file for some time, and they were usually well-versed. "They sounded like recordings," she says. And a good thing it was, too, as she says she first saw them just an hour before their depositions began.
"You sit at that deposition and [most of the time] your client isn't sick and does not remember what he had for lunch, much less the particular brand name of asbestos--if he knows what it is--he worked with some 30 years ago. [And] you realize that this is not legitimate."
By the time she arrived, an explosion of cases was under way, fueled by a Texas law permitting asbestos cases from other states to be tried before Texas courts as long as the defendant manufacturers had some contact with the state of Texas. In 1990, the Texas Supreme Court declared that Texas courts could not dismiss suits simply because they were filed here by nonresidents. In response to the decision, in 1993 the Legislature introduced a bill designed to allow courts to toss the nonresidents' suits out once more. But Baron, who was one of six people on the commission that helped draft the new statute, managed to ensure that the law had an exception for claims related to asbestos, as well as several other categories of mass tort claims.
In other words, out-of-state residents could no longer file many lawsuits in Texas, but they could still file asbestos-related suits.
This small exception quickly became a gaping hole. Between 1990 and 1992, after the Texas Supreme Court made it more difficult to get rid of nonresidents' suits, the number of nonresidents filing asbestos lawsuits in Texas grew rapidly, according to numbers compiled by the Texas Civil Justice League. There were 580 claims filed by nonresidents in 1990, and 3,121 in 1992. After the 1993 bill, the numbers multiplied even more rapidly. Between 1993 and the end of 1995, more than 35,000 nonresidents filed asbestos-related claims in Texas, as lawyers in states with shorter limitations statutes than Texas referred their cases here. Though the loophole was closed last year, there are nearly 42,000 asbestos claims filed in Texas by out-of-state plaintiffs awaiting resolution.
To help prepare Baron & Budd attorneys for the caseload, senior lawyers educated new attorneys at internal lectures and seminars. At these lectures, the new recruits would learn how to handle every aspect of a case.
Among the documents the former Baron & Budd lawyer obtained from another employee were photocopies of handwritten notes apparently taken by an attorney named Angelyn Schmid during an internal training session. The notes admonish lawyers to explain to workers that their claims for damages might be weakened if they had seen warnings from manufacturers that asbestos was hazardous. In essence, the law in some states says that if the workers knew that a product was very dangerous and continued to work around it, that fact can affect their ability to recover money from the manufacturers, according to Joe Sanders, a law professor at the University of Houston.
"Warn [plaintiff] not to say you were around it--even if you were--after you knew it was dangerous," the handwritten notes read.
The notes also suggest that workers should not say they were exposed to asbestos beyond the mid- to late '70s. By the '80s, the dangers of asbestos were widely known, so anyone who continued to work unprotected with the product by then could be presumed to have contributed to the risk--thus weakening any claims for damages.
Under a section titled "name that product," the outline covers the critical business of product identification:
"Show client filled out sheet showing what [client] picked out. Get him to agree he picked out...
"Products: explain in the context of who will be in depo[sition]--emphasize those products."
The manufacturers at the deposition, of course, would be those who hadn't settled yet and might end up going to trial.
"Did it originate at Baron & Budd? No doubt, it did," Baron says of this set of notes. "Was it taken completely out of context? Absolutely. Listen--it's authentic. It's her handwriting...but Angelyn would be delighted to tell you what she meant when she wrote it."
But Schmid was far from delighted when asked about the notes. In fact, she denied they were hers.
"This is not my writing," Schmid said when the Observer faxed her a copy of the notes. "I do not recognize this. I do not remember writing down anything like this." Yet Linda Collins, a certified forensic document examiner consulted by the Observer, says the handwriting is identical "in every way" to that contained in a handwritten change-of-address letter that Schmid sent to the Collin County voter registrar in 1996.
Though Baron insists that neither Terrell's nor Schmid's documents were authorized by the firm, similar instructions appear on other sets of notes apparently taken at internal Baron & Budd training sessions. One document, which Baron says appears to be a typewritten summary of notes taken at a training session given by deposition attorney Jennifer Calhoun on September 18, 1992, contains heavy-handed instructions to clients that echo those contained in the Terrell memo: