Asbestos-Style Lawsuits Growing in N.C. Agribusiness Trials

By Sara Corcoran, Courts Monitor Publisher and CityWatch LA DC Dispatch Contributor

 

Terry Sanford Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Raleigh, N.C. where multiple hog farm trials are being held.

Terry Sanford Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Raleigh, N.C. where multiple hog farm trials are being held.

Recently, North Carolina has been making national headlines for its tawdry and tainted congressional election, but for some observers, an equally interesting civil courts drama is playing out in the Tar Heel state: Iconic big-money asbestos lawyers are now driving hog farm lawsuits.

This week, as in four previous trials, plaintiffs suing hog farms for being an unreasonable nuisance are represented by Michael Kaeske, a Dallas attorney known for asbestos cases. His team is joined by Lisa Blue, the widow of Fred Baron, who made the Dallas-based Baron & Budd an asbestos litigation giant. Baron & Budd is also known in North Carolina because of Fred Baron’s close relationship with former VP candidate John Edwards, allegedly helping conceal Edwards’ former mistress, Rielle Hunter, during Edwards’ VP run.

Baron & Budd is also notorious for its involvement in witness coaching described in the “Mystery of the Missing Memo.” (I wrote about this strange practice in the Huffington Post back in December of 2017.) The memo is an asbestos-lawsuit legend, and significant because N.C. critics of the hog farm lawsuits claim that similar tactics are being utilized in their cases.

There are multiple cases filed so far and in three of the four trials last fall, juries awarded a combined half-billion dollars in damages, although N.C. personal injury law caps should reduce that amount to approximately $100 million dollars. All the cases are being appealed.

It’s worth noting that the hog farm lawsuits do not make claims of environmental damage, health concerns or other damages. They basically claim the smell of hog waste is so bad that it becomes an unreasonable nuisance and diminishes their quality of life. The resulting evidence, including decades-old government documents and detailed expert testimony rolling out over weeks, would seem familiar to anyone who has seen an asbestos trial.

In a possible legal strategy to fight asbestos lawyers with other asbestos lawyers, the defendants, after the first three cases, have been represented by Robert Thackston. Mr. Thackston, a North Carolina native with offices in Dallas and Los Angeles, has been associated with high-profile asbestos defense for decades.

The tables seemed to turn in the defendants’ favor for the fourth case. Senior District Court Judge David Faber (a different judge than in the first three trials) refused to allow some of the evidence of the first cases. The jury awarded about $100,000 to eight hog farm neighbors and half of the plaintiffs received only $100. Then Judge Faber nixed the punishment phase of the trial.

This pattern of small client payouts relative to the award offers another parallel to asbestos litigation. Also, the three cases that went pro-plaintiff had a different federal judge than the fourth case which was pro-defendant. Off the record, many key asbestos lawyers claim that judicial attitudes carry too much weight in asbestos trials; similar claims from both sides are being made in the hog farm decisions.

The left-leaning “Progressive Pulse” blog, affiliated with the North Carolina Policy Watch, noted that Judge Faber nixed testimony about ownership by a Chinese firm and also declined to allow evidence on industry executives’ salaries.

“Those are emotional arguments,” the judge ruled.

As this area of litigation produces more awards, just like asbestos litigation did, national politicians are also taking notice. They point out that these are federal trials with possible national implications for agricultural operations.

“We need to come up with model legislation, we need to figure out what the federal government should do,” said U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, a N.C. Republican who was part of an agriculture roundtable in Raleigh last fall. “We need to send a very clear message to the trial lawyers: We’re bigger than you when we coordinate.”

Even media coverage is split along urban-rural lines, with The News & Observer, a California-owned Raleigh daily which won a Pulitzer in the 90s for a hog farm series, embracing an environmentalist tone. Outlets closer in proximity to hog farm communities have been more sympathetic to the farmers, including an in-depth investigative report from a Wilmington TV station offering a relatively sordid tale of out-of-state lawyers, angry state judges, and ethical quandaries.

In her report at WECT, journalist Casey Roman, also noted that “… how the plaintiffs were enlisted is a question with no clear answer. Spend time in any of the areas under scrutiny, and you will hear wildly different stories. On one side are accusations the legal teams went door to door recruiting plaintiffs for an issue the lawyers manufactured under the promise of a big payout.” Roman counters that “…….on the other side the plaintiffs had been  pleading for relief for years with no recourse until finally a legal entity would hear their case and offer their services.”

She also reports that the farming community found significant fault with both the trials’ location in the urban “Research Triangle” and the fact that jurors have not visited the hog farms. She says “.. they said they feel it is unfair that city-dwelling jurors would be tasked with making a verdict on how agricultural areas operate.”

The WECT report also explains the details of who is named in the lawsuits. Hint: It’s not the actual farmers in question, but the company contracting with the farms. Of course, pitting sympathetic plaintiffs against deep-pocketed corporations is a staple of asbestos lawsuits.

Could this be another parallel? With two dozen hog farm cases pending in North Carolina, with about 500 plaintiffs, hog farm cases are gaining velocity. Considering the livestock industry in California, we will likely see this type of “asbestos-style” ag litigation gain momentum on the West Coast. Will the Bear Flag State be tarred and feathered during the year of the pig?

What remains to be seen is if, like the asbestos cases, awards push hog farmers into bankruptcy and create court-ordered bankruptcy trusts to handle settlements.

Born in Ireland but Made in the USA … of Brick and Block

By Courts Monitor publisher, Sara Corcoran. Originally published in CityWatch LA.

 

President of the Bricklayers Union, James Boland, seen here with Courts Monitor publisher Sara Corcoran.

President of the Bricklayers Union, James Boland, seen here with Courts Monitor publisher Sara Corcoran.

As President of the Bricklayers Union in Washington D.C., James Boland, an immigrant from Ireland, is proud of his heritage and history with labor. As I took a brief stroll around his office, I noticed photos of prominent politicians, spanning generations and a 49ers football helmet that caught my attention.  As a former resident of San Francisco, President Boland got his start in the bricklaying world like every other member, as a former bricklayer. Having worked his way from the bottom to union management, Mr. Boland has a firm grasp of the issues that are facing the U.S. construction industry. 

“The Bricklayers Union is important to me because I’ve spent my entire life as a member,” he noted. “As the longest union in continuous existence,” he continued, “the Bricklayers Union is very distinguished and has great persistence…The Union formed when the Baltimore and Philadelphia bricklayers locals merged in the mid-19th century to improve working conditions and relocated to Washington DC.” 

Read the entire interview here.

Courts Monitor publisher thinks that the newly emerging cannabis industry can learn a thing or two from the alcohol industry

Sara Corcoran is correspondent, contributing editor, and founding publisher of the National Courts Monitor & California Courts Monitor.

Sara Corcoran is a correspondent, contributing editor, and founding publisher of the National Courts Monitor & California Courts Monitor.

Sara Corcoran, the Courts Monitor publisher, thinks that the newly emerging cannabis industry can learn a thing or two from the alcohol industry. For example, as the repeal of alcohol prohibition turns 85 years old, the feuds between the “beer and wine” crowd and the “distilled spirits” companies could easily be repeated as cannabis regulation takes shape amid conflicted industry sectors. She is published at CityWatch LA, the regionally prominent Los Angeles-based opinion-and-politics website here.
 

Courts Monitor Publisher Believes Kavanaugh Accuser

Sara Corcoran is correspondent, contributing editor, and founding publisher of the National Courts Monitor & California Courts Monitor.

Sara Corcoran is correspondent, contributing editor, and founding publisher of the National Courts Monitor & California Courts Monitor.

Based in part on the fact they attended the same Washington, D.C. area high school, Courts Monitor Publisher Sara Corcoran explains why she believes the woman accusing the U.S. Supreme Court nominee of a sexual attack. She posted her story at the Daily Caller website which you can find here.

Tar Heel State on Point to Tackle Asbestos Fraud by Sara Corcoran, Courts Monitor Publisher

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis is among several senators pushing reform with the “PROTECT Asbestos Victims Act.” Photo credit: Wikipedia.

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis is among several senators pushing reform with the “PROTECT Asbestos Victims Act.” Photo credit: Wikipedia.

North Carolina, long famous for great college sports and some of the nation’s best barbecue, is fast earning recognition of another sort: Being at the forefront of America’s longest-running personal injury litigation, asbestos lawsuits. The new status is interesting in the civil justice sense not only because of recent landmarks involving talc (I’ve written about that here but over how the state overlaps with national political trends.

For example, there was another “reform” milestone this month as the Tar Heel State became, by my count, at least the 15th state to embrace increased transparency in the virtually unregulated filed of asbestos bankruptcy trusts. The trusts are part of a special process for asbestos companies to protect them from massive liability, and industry watchers say some 100 companies have gone the bankruptcy route.

Of course, asbestos litigation community members will recall that one of the more prominent bankruptcies came in 2004 in North Carolina, and has unearthed questionable practices as related to the management of asbestos trusts. “Garlock” is a gasket manufacturer that received bankruptcy protection in Charlotte, NC. In an unusual move, a retired judge presiding over the case allowed discovery into 15 cases, eventually deciding that ALL 15 had some level of evidence suppression.

For context, it is worth noting that asbestos bankruptcy is an insular environment. Faced with burgeoning asbestos liability in the early 1990s, the U.S. Congress in 1994 created a system that allowed court-approved trusts to assume those payouts. Funded by the companies, the trusts are typically managed by victims’ attorneys and have come under fire for having little or no independent oversight.

The Reuters news service explained that “… a judge who found what he called a ‘startling pattern’ of abuse by plaintiff’s lawyers may have shifted the landscape of asbestos litigation with a ruling in favor of manufacturers” and then quoted from the judges decree stating that lawyers had manipulated evidence to get bigger settlements from Garlock.

Citing his finding, the judge knocked a billion dollars off the amount victims attorneys were seeking for asbestos cancer victims. Garlock even sued some of the firms that had been suing them, claiming racketeering. That case was resolved, but other civil racketeering cases have been filed and more than a dozen state attorneys general have taken notice, The AG group issued a formal letter demanding information from trust records, but did not get that information. That effort resulted in a lawsuit in Utah, and developments are ongoing.

In discussing North Carolina, it is also worth noting that in neighboring South Carolina, another retired judge – a former state supreme court chief justice – presided over one of the nation’s high-profile asbestos/talc trials that ended in a hung jury. More than 10,000 lawsuits nationwide claim that talc was involved in giving them cancer, with some jury awards in the millions of dollars. Defendants note that none of that has been paid out and appeals have overturned some big awards.

Federally, the asbestos trust transparency has been a casualty of Congressional gridlock for years. Yet new traction is being reported for a bill with – you guessed it! – North Carolina connections. U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis is among several senators pushing reform with the “PROTECT Asbestos Victims Act.”

Probably the most significant section of the bill involves allowing the U.S. Trustee Program of the Department of Justice, which has oversight of similar trusts, to investigate fraud against the asbestos trusts – a power not included when Congress created the asbestos-specific system in 1994.

“Asbestos bankruptcy trusts were created to compensate asbestos victims, not trial lawyers,” said Senator Tillis. “The PROTECT Asbestos Victims Act will reform the asbestos bankruptcy trust system by adding in layers of oversight, accountability and transparency, which in turn will help eliminate fraud and ensure that trusts are able to compensate present and future asbestos victims.”

Another sponsor of the bill, Chuck Grassley (R-IA), argued that we “… need commonsense accountability measures to ensure that the trust fund is not syphoned away from the victims it was intended to help. And we need independent oversight to protect against any waste, fraud, and abuse. This bill accomplishes these much needed reforms.”

Grassley refers to a provision of the proposed law that empowers the U.S. Trustee Program of the Department of Justice to investigate fraud against asbestos trusts, which they are excluded from doing under current law. Allegations of potential fraud has brought some to support trust transparency efforts, at least in part because asbestos cancers impact U.S. military veterans more than the non-vet population.

For example, the reforms would no doubt be welcomed news to the American Legion, one the nation’s largest veterans’ groups, which has repeatedly endorsed legislation aimed at discovering attorneys who might be pilfering the trusts.

If that turns out to be the case, keep an eye on the Carolinas, Tar Heels and Palmettos alike.

(Sara Corcoran is the publisher of the California Courts Monitor, National Courts Monitor, and a contributor to CityWatchLA and other news outlets.)

Sara Corcoran interviews Alan Lowenthal, United States Congressman for California’s 47th District.

Courts Monitor publisher Sara Corcoran with Alan Lowenthal, United States Congressman for California’s 47thDistrict.

Courts Monitor publisher Sara Corcoran with Alan Lowenthal, United States Congressman for California’s 47thDistrict.

Just published is Courts Monitor publisher Sara Corcoran’s interview with Alan Lowenthal, United States Congressman for California’s 47thDistrict.

“I have the largest Cambodian community in the country, one of the largest Vietnamese American communities, and a large LGBTQ community. I am going to continue to fight for human rights. I’ve had legislation passed with Ed Markey in the Senate to ensure that the State Department deals with LGBTQ issues internationally. Right now, there are some 70 nations where it’s a crime of some sort to be gay and in some of those countries you can be put to death. Together we need to make sure U.S. policymakers are working with those countries to change those policies. We can provide assistance to them and urge that they be required to have human rights protections for all,” states Rep. Lowenthal in the interview.

Rep. Lowenthal also provides insights on the upcoming elections in this riveting interview. Read it here: http://www.randomlengthsnews.com/2018/05/22/19938/

Courts Monitor publisher Sara Corcoran tells the tale of legal enigma in her recent Buzzfeed article

All Roads Lead to Baron & Budd-2 copyDebating the “nature of existence” is more the stuff of college dorms (and at least one recent documentary) than state appeals courts, so the legal team for a Texas journalist seeking to open a 20-year-old deposition transcript might have been taken aback when the debate arose not from the other side, but from the bench.

At issue is a deposition by a Texas attorney named Russell Budd, part of the politically connected Dallas-based firm Barron & Budd that rose to prominence, in large part, due to successfully representing asbestos victims. The Russell Budd deposition from 20 years ago reportedly addresses a “witness coaching memo” that was as controversial then as it is now.

Courts Monitor publisher Sara Corcoran tells the tale of this legal enigma in her recent Buzzfeed article, Texas Attorney General Paxton On Point To Open Mystery Testimony.