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.

* "[B]y the mid 1970s most insulating products being installed no longer contained asbestos. The public was just beginning to hear reports that asbestos was dangerous...You want to be PERFECTLY CLEAR ON THE RECORD that you did not expose yourself to asbestos once you learned it was dangerous!"

In affidavits submitted to authorities, Terrell and others in Baron & Budd's employ have stated that Terrell gave her memo to about 200 Baron & Budd clients. The Observer was able to locate and interview a dozen of these clients. Most were vague about whether they had actually seen the memo, and none admitted having a specific recollection of the document. "Tell you what, they give you so much stuff," says Julian Avery Roberts.

Courts and experts in legal ethics have differed wildly on the propriety of Terrell's memo. Some have said it's OK, given Terrell's claim that she orally instructed clients to tell the truth and always gave out the second document. A former Texas Supreme Court justice called it a "cancer on the legal system." Baron has denied that the memo contains "firm policy" and is clearly tired of the questions.

"This whole thing is so stupid," Baron says. "You have to know the context of how Lynell did this before you can draw a judgment." A few minutes later, he says, "You'll never know the context, because you've not interviewed Lynell, and Lynell's not going to tell you the way that she used it. But taken out of context and taken away from the staple that stapled the other piece of it together, it sounds bad." (The Observer asked Baron to arrange an interview with Terrell, his employee. He declined.)

Yet a number of former Baron & Budd employees say that the information and techniques contained in the memo are widely used, even taught to employees. They say the Terrell memo was not truly an aberration, but a written example of how the product-identification staff works at Baron & Budd.

Cathy Eads-Tone says she laughed last fall when the Terrell memo surfaced and she read excerpts informing clients that, in the event of product-identification mistakes, they should say the "girl from Baron & Budd" wrote it down wrong.

From 1987 until late 1991, Eads-Tone was a Baron & Budd "girl," a paralegal handling the medical side of hundreds of asbestosis claims. "If there ever was a screw-up, 'the girl' did it. It was a joke," Eads-Tone says.

Eads-Tone, 38, who was laid off by the firm and now is employed in Dallas as an insurance claims adjuster, worked side by side with Cheryl Kuntze, who did product-identification paralegal work at Baron & Budd for five years, until she resigned in 1992. Now 39, Kuntze works in North Carolina as a loan officer.

At Baron & Budd, Kuntze's duties consisted mostly of helping clients identify which asbestos products they recalled seeing at their workplaces.

Eads-Tone, who remembers making one trip with Kuntze to upstate New York in the winter of 1991 to do "product ID" interviews, and Kuntze both say that a client-coaching system was in place at the firm. Workers were routinely encouraged to remember seeing asbestos products on their jobs that they didn't truly recall, the women say.

It worked like this, according to Kuntze: The firm would start with a printout from the Social Security Administration listing every job the workers ever held. She would set up a meeting with the clients, usually at their homes, and she would spend weeks on the road traveling from interview to interview.

Using past lawsuits and other information, Kuntze said, attorneys at the firm would already have provided her a list of asbestos products. "Depending on what area of the country, and based on prior asbestos litigation, they [Baron & Budd] already would know who they were going to sue. It was based on lawsuits that were filed previously in that area," she says.

Russell Budd says Baron & Budd has an internal database that shows what asbestos products were at a particular job location and who else may have worked there. Thus, in many or even most cases, Baron & Budd knows ahead of time what the "correct" product ID answers are. As Budd explains it, this knowledge is "one of the benefits that we bring to the table for these clients."

Paralegals say--and neither Baron nor Budd denies--that workers are selectively shown pictures of asbestos products they should identify. Kuntze says that in meetings with clients, she would bring a "3- or 4- or 5-inch binder with pictures of asbestos products, divided up according to manufacturer. I'd go through page by page and encourage the client to recall the products they used. It would be pretty strong encouragement. Most of the time when I left, I had ID for every manufacturer that we needed to get ID for."

She already had the answers, she says. Kuntze just needed the worker to agree she had the correct ones. Most would wise up pretty quickly, she says. "Clients understood that products needed to be ID'd for the manufacturers we sued," she says.

Budd says this is permissible. "If there were, you know, 20 products that were used at the shipyard that have been identified over and over and over and over again, by literally hundreds or maybe even thousands of witnesses--yeah, it would be our duty to say, 'These are the following products that have been used at that job site. Do you recall any of these?'

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