In the September 4 issue of Forbes is the story of Harry Kananian of Ohio, who died on June 24, 2000, of mesothelioma--"a cancer almost certainly caused by asbestos." Precisely how he got the disease is question that will never be answered. Asks writer Daniel Fisher: "Was it as a teenager working in dusty factories in Cleveland? Or was it when he slept in the top bunk of a World War II troopship that had asbestos-clad pipes rattling 2 feet above his head? Or was it from smoking Kent cigarettes that were made with asbestos-containing filters for a few years in the early 1950s?" Kananian made all those claims, and more, in various lawsuits filed earlier in 2000, when he was diagnosed. Happens all the time in cases like these: Folks with absestos-related diseases go after anyone and everyone who ever made the stuff, even absestos manufacturers that were long ago bankrupted and shuttered.
Those companies maintain trusts, which are overseen by law firms given the OK to dole out hundreds of thousands of dollars to plaintiffs who claim it was absbestos that done 'em in. Problem is, some of those law firms happen to represent the very plaintiffs who have their hands out. And chief among those law firms engaged in what one law professor refers to as a conflict of interest: Dallas' own Baron & Budd, which, according to Forbes, has lawyers who sit on nine bankruptcy trusts, the most of any law firm in the nation. In short, says this well-regarded prof who's testified before Congress on several occasions, it's "fraud." From Forbes:
"This is pervasive; this permeates the entire business," says Lester Brickman, a professor of legal ethics at Cardozo School of Law in New York, who has exposed questionable practices of plaintiff lawyers in his scholarly articles and served as a paid witness for companies opposing asbestos claims. "Bankruptcy judges should be ashamed of themselves for, in effect, going along with this fraud."
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The result: double dipping and false claims, the result of these trust settlements being kept confidential to the point where they can't even be used as evidence in subsequent trials. And law firms running these trusts make millions for doing so; it's a win-win, except, ya know, for the poor plaintiff dying of mesothelioma. For a little history on Baron & Budd, check out this 1998 piece from the paper version of Unfair Park. --Robert Wilonsky