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.

"If she is construing that to be encouragement, then that's entirely permissible and probably our job. [Not] probably--it is our job. If it's anything more than that, then I don't know what she's talking about."

Yet Kuntze says that in many cases, the client had no specific recollection of some products before she interviewed them. "My original caseload was a thousand, but I didn't interview that many people. It was in the hundreds. I'd say that probably in 75 percent of those cases I had people identify at least one product they couldn't recall originally."

Like Baron, Budd seems to believe that refreshing memories in these cases is not only ethical, but also mandated. "It certainly would be our job to show the plaintiff the evidence that products of this type were used at that job site and ask him if he remembered [any of them]," Budd says--even if there were no memories to start with.

But as Kuntze and Eads-Tone remember it, their job didn't stop with implanting memories; there were also the asbestos products they had to encourage clients not to recall.

In New York, Kuntze says, "everybody could remember something from Johns-Manville," which was the largest U.S. distributor of asbestos products.

But Kuntze claims that her supervisors, two lawyers, told her to discourage identification of Johns-Manville products because the Manville Trust was not paying claims rendered against it at the time.

This, Budd denies. "Absolutely not true," he responds. "I can show you in virtually every case, there will be, for example, Johns-Manville exposure [listed]. There will be UNARCO exposure [listed]. There will be Forty-Eight. Those are all companies that have been in bankruptcy."

Kuntze insists that, for certain periods of time when tactical reasons dictated it was better not to have exposure to a bankrupt company's products, identification of those products was discouraged. Thus, when a client would say he saw, for instance, a Johns-Manville pipe covering, Kuntze says, she would hand them a line. "You'd say, 'You know, we've talked to some other people, other witnesses, and they recall working with Owens Corning's Kaylo. Don't you think you saw that?' And they'd say, 'Yeah, maybe you're right.'"

Later, she says, Johns-Manville began paying settlements, and she was ordered to go out and "meet these guys again" and get them once again to name Johns-Manville products.

Kuntze says she learned some of these methods and techniques from "other paralegals I worked with." But she has no doubt that her supervisors and at least one of the firm's partners knew what was going on.

"I remember specifically there was a case in the Mobile, Alabama, area that was set for trial, and I was specifically sent down there to get product ID. I was basically told, 'Don't come back without the IDs.' Russell Budd or [former Baron & Budd attorney] Sarah Clark told me that." She says that occurred sometime in 1991 or 1992.

"That's not true," says Sarah J. Clark, who was a Baron & Budd lawyer for more than 10 years, ending in 1995.

Budd denies it as well: "That certainly doesn't sound like anything that I would have ever said."

Kuntze says she thought about the nature of her work and felt ethically conflicted, but she stayed on. "That was a choice I had to make for myself. I was making good money."

In her last year, she made about $43,000, she says.
Product-ID paralegals, who meet with clients regularly, hold considerable status at the firm, says another former paralegal who demanded that she not be identified. "They treat these paralegals very well. Pay them well. Bonus them well. They are treated like the upper echelon."

Says Kuntze: "There was at least one time, maybe more, that I went to Brian Weinstein [her supervisor and a Baron & Budd attorney] and said I didn't think a particular settlement was right. That I can't believe we're doing this. I was basically told to be quiet or leave."

Weinstein, who now owns his own firm in Seattle that also specializes in asbestos litigation, says that simply didn't happen. "I honestly don't remember telling anybody to do something that was improper. Nobody was ever told to lie or to say something was there if they didn't believe it was there.

"Coaching of clients? You have a duty to coach your clients," Weinstein continues. "...People were coached, but nobody did anything improper that I know of. It would be part of their job to say, 'Hey, Joe Schmoe said it was there. Does your memory jog because it was there?'

"You walk a fine line. I don't believe I ever walked over the line."
But Kuntze recalls it differently: "There were clients we were getting money for, and some people just didn't deserve a dime."

The paralegal who asked not to be identified confirms that Kuntze told her she routinely led clients to give specific testimony.

"She said, 'Oh God, yeah, I used to prep those guys all the time. You know half of them couldn't read or write.' And when they couldn't identify things, she'd say, 'Certainly you were exposed to this, don't you remember?' And steer them that way. Very, very suggestive."

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