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.

Federal prosecutors appear to be in the early stages of their investigation, and records, as well as former employees of Baron & Budd interviewed by the Observer, have the potential to expand the probe well beyond the Terrell memo. But as demonstrated by the diversity of opinion legal ethicists have delivered on the propriety of the Terrell memo, the subject is inherently difficult. Yet if the end of punishing callous corporations once justified the means alleged by former Baron & Budd employees, those days have long since passed. The most culpable defendants are, by and large, bankrupt. The workplace is significantly safer.

Certainly no one disputes the need to compensate the remaining workers who are seriously ill. But as the decades passed and the reforms were adopted, the pool of obviously sick victims has greatly diminished. Baron himself estimates that a large percentage of his clients are the "pleurals" and asbestosis cases, in whom the long-term health impact of asbestos exposure is negligible, or even in Baron's own words, "in the eye of the beholder."

Baron & Budd's former employees make the case that if the asbestos industry was in need of reform, today, 25 years after Fred Baron launched his war, it is the settlement-mill approach to justice that needs to change.

Even Baron himself, when he isn't discussing his own firm, recognizes that his profession needs to heal itself.

"The public does look down on us," Baron told the Dallas Bar Association this May in a speech inside the Belo Mansion. "The public thinks that we're on the take. The public thinks that we do bad things. There's a public perception that lawyers are involved in double-dealing.

"Unless and until we start really and truly playing by the rules, we're going to continue to have that perception," Baron says, his voice rising in indignation. "And I know it's difficult, because I know that there are client pressures on all of us...But we've got to do it the right way, for the sake of all of us and for the sake of the profession."

If not for the sake of the truth itself.

Additional reporting for this story was provided by Dallas Observer editorial intern Elisa Bock.

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