In early October, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) introduced the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2016, which would expedite the prohibition of asbestos imports while further curbing current and future uses of the substance.
Like all such initiatives, it is designed to create at least one toxic side effect: vulture trial lawyers who are predators more than scavengers. The measure does nothing to address the ongoing exploitation of victims by those purporting to help them – the lawyers who represent mesothelioma and other asbestos-related sufferers. In fact, it just encourages crooked lawyers who see cancer and think “cash.”
These piratical entrepreneurs engage in such blatantly abusive and illegal patterns of professional misbehavior as to tarnish the very cause they allegedly seek to serve.
Sadly, the predatory asbestos lawyers have plenty of cover. The plaintiffs’ bar as a whole is an inveterate funding source for Democratic lawmakers who seem loath to pursue any action that might be construed as hostile to this multi-billion dollar industry. It’s an unholy political alliance of vultures helping other vultures, en-flock, justice be damned. It makes legislation like the Reinstein Ban just another way to churn further, highly profitable litigation.
Overcharging clients is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s become almost standard practice among many asbestos lawyers to manipulate the timing of claims and suborn perjury in order to drive up the value of settlements. Back in 1997, one asbestos powerhouse, Baron & Budd, accidentally disclosed an internal memo advising that “a defense attorney will have no way of knowing whether [claimants] are lying about their exposure to particular asbestos products.” You may recall that the firm’s founder, Fred Baron, also happened to have a close relationship with then-Senator Jon Edwards, the former plaintiff’s lawyer who almost became Vice President of the United States.
Remember? He’s the lawyer who flew Edwards’ mistress around on private jets, providing money and a place to hide out.
The so-called script memo has become newly relevant as it’s included in civil RICO suits filed against asbestos law firms. In one notable instance involving gasket manufacturer Garlock Sealing Technologies, the RICO case came in the wake of a North Carolina bankruptcy judge George Hodges reducing an asbestos defendant’s liability by 90%.
After plaintiff’s attorneys failed to get the RICO case dismissed, they settled with Garlock in March, 2016 (the case is reportedly “stayed” pending working out settlement provisions). The settlement underscores the widespread practice by asbestos lawyers of withholding evidence of client’s exposure to asbestos from sources besides the one they happen to be suing at the moment. Plaintiffs often allege different “facts” about time, location, and level of exposure in order to sue and collect from as many different companies as they can. Rest assured, they do so at the behest of their counselors.
At the end of the day, of course, the financial benefits for most clients are paltry compared to the massive payouts their lawyers enjoy. Actually, we are all exposed, as a new documentary film, UnSettled, from Canadian journalist Paul Johnson vividly dramatizes. It follows a case against a California car dealership dragged into a Kafka-esque maze of unrelenting litigation – all the more Kafka-esque because this dealership never even used asbestos. (I was fortunate to view a pre-screening; Johnson says he’s 90 percent ready to release the film.)
The movie also documents how Judge George Hodges get fed up in the Garlock case and responded accordingly. His adjudication of the Garlock matter is already helping other similarly-besieged manufacturers in their own legal struggles. Yet it’s still not enough, not when asbestos lawyers are such heavily contributing members of a political lobby as unshakeable in its resolve as any gun association or corporate PAC.
And talk about flock of vultures: Peter Kraus is just one example of an asbestos lawyer whose dalliances reach all the way to the top. A RICO target in the Garlock case, Kraus is also a golf chum of, and fundraiser for, Barack Obama. When Hillary Clinton visited Dallas for a recent fundraiser, it was at the home of Lisa Blue, the widow of Fred Barron of “script memo” and “Edwards’ mistress” fame.
Yet the problem is bipartisan and, as such, we need to form a bipartisan front and transcend our respective ideological predilections. Conservatives who decry the influence of trial attorneys might reconsider or at least qualify their wholesale opposition to campaign finance reform. John Pudner, the Executive Director of Take Back Our Republic, is one conservative who understands the problem. Calling the influence of asbestos lawyers “problematic,” he at least recognizes that “politicians often act in the best interests of their contributors instead of their constituents,” underscoring “the need for reducing the influence of money in politics.”
For their part, liberals must recognize that their alliances with crooked lawyers will, in the long term, disserve their own interests as well as the interests of asbestos victims who deserve responsible legal representation. To be sure, there are many compelling arguments against tort reform – but there is no credible argument to excuse subordination of perjury, and those pious political souls who ride the highest horses often fall the furthest.
Just like vultures do to claim their scrap of meat.
John Ransom is finance and economics writer/editor with offices in DC, Singapore and SE Asia specializing in global markets and security.