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.

* Coach asbestos-exposed workers on their symptoms (for example, tell them to say they suffered from "shortness of breath" as a result of asbestos exposure);

* Coach workers on how they were harmed by asbestos ("get plaintiff to say he is afraid of getting [cancer]");

* Tell clients the "facts" of their asbestos exposure and implant memories where there were none.

In the end, Baron's defense boils down to this: This is how "any lawyer in the country that is worth a damn" works.

The charges and defenses raise a question about which lawyers themselves disagree: Just how far can one go in helping his client come up with the facts? While there are many who would agree that the lawyer's latitude is as wide as Baron says it is, there are those who protest, and not all of them can be dismissed as asbestos-industry apologists.

The troubles at the house that asbestos built first came to light last fall, when a memo written by a Baron & Budd paralegal Lynell Terrell outlining techniques for coaching witnesses was handed to opposing lawyers. That memo ignited a controversy over the firm's methods and prompted a review by a Dallas County grand jury. The grand jury's term expired in late June without its acting, an apparent victory for Baron.

County prosecutors say the grand jury did not act because the U.S. Attorney's Office has taken over the investigation. Privately, local prosecutors familiar with the investigation say they doubt that the county had the resources to make a case or that they could prove the Terrell memo was used in Dallas County. Federal law-enforcement officials, however, say the district attorney's office abandoned the investigation because it feared Baron's money and political clout.

Whether for lack of resources or lack of gumption, the local investigation into the Terrell memo never gathered steam, and the federal probe is just getting under way.

In the meantime, the Observer has independently uncovered additional documents and located witnesses willing to speak about what they consider Baron & Budd's wrongdoing. The paper found that at least 24 of the firm's clients who were deposed in Dallas County might have received the Terrell memo. Reporters have interviewed former Baron & Budd employees who charge that the Terrell memo, far from being an isolated document, is in fact part of a pattern of witness coaching that buttresses a multimillion-dollar lawsuit machine.

Mr. Asbestos
Fred Baron's name is synonymous with the history of asbestos litigation and the story of how a band of courageous lawyers made corporations pay for covering up the hazards of asbestos.

A naturally occurring mineral, asbestos is pliable enough to be spun into cloth, but can withstand tremendous heat, traits that made it a useful insulator to industry in everything from kilns to power plants. Asbestos is also a potent carcinogen and a cause of deadly lung disease--problems manufacturers recognized early on, certainly by the 1920s and '30s, when asbestos miners and factory workers began choking to death from cancer and asbestosis. Yet for the sake of profits, some manufacturers conspired to conceal early evidence of asbestos mortality--exposing hundred of thousands of unprotected workers to potentially lethal products into the late '70s and early '80s.

Baron was among the lawyers who unearthed documents showing how asbestos manufacturers hid evidence of the dangers of asbestos. "He's one of the giants of asbestos litigation," says Frank Andrews, a former Dallas County district judge.

Yet this giant found himself the subject of an investigation this year by a Dallas County grand jury, which examined Baron & Budd's conduct in asbestos cases.

Baron breezily dismisses the controversy surrounding his firm. "This whole thing is so stupid," he says. "I mean, it really is."

As he speaks, Baron sits at the head of a 20-foot conference table at the offices of Baron & Budd, P.C., which occupy nearly four floors of the Centrum office tower at the intersection of Oak Lawn and Cedar Springs. The firm employs 58 lawyers and a 324-person staff, and at least four outside law firms have counseled Baron & Budd because of the furor surrounding the Terrell memo.

"I've got tons of lawyers now," Baron says with a laugh.
It's an embarrassing situation for a man who hobnobs with Supreme Court justices, consults with famed legal minds, and has the president as a houseguest.

"I mean...I've never been accused of anything in my life. Ever. Ever," he says. "And this has been a horrible experience for me."

The trouble began last fall, after a first-year Baron & Budd lawyer handed over an internal firm document to opposing counsel during a deposition. The document, "Preparing for Your Deposition," appeared to be a preparation aid that told workers exposed to asbestos how to testify. It caused a minor sensation. Defense attorneys filed it in courts around the nation, and the press excerpted it in magazines and newspapers everywhere, from Harper's and Reason to the ABA Journal, The Washington Post, and the National Law Journal. The document has been cited as an example of everything from how sleazy lawyers are to how hard it is to prosecute for witness-tampering.

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