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.

Baron says that he hired attorney Robert M. Greenberg and the Dallas powerhouse of Carrington Coleman Sloman & Blumenthal to "advise us on the ramifications" of Lynell Terrell's memo. "They both advised us that we needed a very comprehensive internal investigation to be certain that what Lynell told us was correct, and...it was a very comprehensive [investigation]."

Attorneys at Carrington Coleman say Greenberg, a longtime friend of Baron's, oversaw the investigation. As a result of the investigation and of his own knowledge of Baron & Budd's system, Baron says, he is certain that nothing else like the Terrell memo exists.

In courts around the state, Baron and his lawyers defended the memo, claiming it was a one-of-a-kind document produced solely by Terrell. "Did she do something that we don't approve of?" Baron says. "Yes, no doubt about it. Does that mean that there's an epidemic in this office? Absolutely, positively not. If there was an epidemic, we would have found evidence that other people were using this document, or...that other people were using documents at all or doing anything. No evidence at all. Period. None.

"It's been a nightmare," he adds. "But I know why it happened." According to Baron, the scrutiny has been whipped up by his enemies, especially Raymark, the successor to asbestos manufacturer Raybestos Manhattan, with whom Baron has been waging what he describes as a decade-long "nuclear war."

"You know, we have some very significant enemies who would like to destroy us," Baron says.

Heart and Soul
At 50, Baron still appears boyish; the only lines in his face are the two laugh lines that form at the edge of his brown eyes when he smiles. On a recent July evening, smiles were not frequent.

"I put my heart and soul into this," Baron says with some passion. "There are just very few law firms that have any quality to them that represent working people and have the resources to go up against these asshole defendants and call their bluff."

It is 7:15 p.m. in the offices of Baron & Budd, P.C., and name partner Fred Baron is livid. It isn't just the fact that the air-conditioning was shut off an hour ago, or that there are two reporters in his conference room seeking answers.

The truth is that anger isn't unusual for Baron. It's what has fueled his considerable success and helped make him one of the highest-profile lawyers in the country specializing in "toxic torts," or injuries caused by poisonous substances. His anger at how some asbestos manufacturers hid the dangers of their products for decades and his rage at corporate wantonness in poisoning the environment led him to establish what he says is the "largest firm in the country" specializing in toxic tort litigation.

"Most of the law firms that do asbestos take that case, send in the medical to the defendant, settle the case, and that's the end of it," he says. "We work every single one of them out. We have three times as many people for half the number of cases that the other firms do, and that's because I give a goddamn about my clients, and I want my clients to have absolutely first-class representation."

He has a point. Baron represents working-class people who, in contrast to the manufacturers he sues, cannot afford to pay lawyers by the hour. He takes his mission seriously; with Baron, it's personal.

Born in Iowa, Baron grew up in Rock Island, Illinois. When he was 15, his mother remarried and moved to Smithville, near Austin, where he finished high school. He attended the University of Texas and UT Law School, where he fell under the spell of the late W. Page Keeton, the Harvard-trained torts professor who co-authored one of the primary casebooks used to teach torts in American law schools. "The very first day, the very first class, I had Page Keeton for torts," Baron recalls. "And I just was spellbound...It was really an incredible enlightening about what the tort law can do.

"Almost a year later I was sitting in a lecture one evening that Ralph Nader gave, and I was just totally proselytized," Baron says.

"We worked it out [with the dean] so that 11 of us who were on the law review were able to move to Washington and spend about six months working for Ralph. I got to be very close friends with him, and I really understood what he was doing and why he was doing it."

After graduating, Baron moved to Dallas to work with the small labor firm of Mullinax, Wells, Mauzy & Collins, where, in August 1973, one of the partners handed Baron, the youngest lawyer in the firm, a case nobody else wanted. "The firm had kind of made up its mind that it didn't want to do the case, but it didn't want to piss off the client," recalls Baron. "And I was not terribly busy, so they asked me to go out and visit with the clients."

The case involved workers at a Pittsburgh, Corning asbestos plant in Tyler, where workers had turned raw asbestos into insulation. The Tyler plant had recently been dismantled after the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health issued a report citing dangerous health conditions. "OSHA went in there and said that it was the worst plant they'd seen in the United States," Baron recalls. "People were actually--it's hard to believe--just shoveling asbestos off the floor, without any respiratory protection." Although the plant had been in operation for less than two decades, at least one worker had already died from asbestosis.

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