Present at the creation

The SE Texas Record May 11, 2008, 2:12am

Rock star Janis Joplin, Super Bowl champion football coach Jimmy Johnson and Olympic gold medalist Babe Didrikson Zaharias are among the Golden Triangle's most notable legends.

But pop culture icons that they are, the trio's impact holds nothing on Orange attorney Ward Stephenson, the man credited with inventing asbestos litigation.

He did it in Jefferson County Court in 1966, filing suit against 11 manufacturers, including Johns-Manville and Owens Corning, on behalf of his client, Claude Tomplait, a Lake Charles, La., insulation worker diagnosed with asbestosis, or chronic inflammation of the lungs.

The epic economic repercussions triggered by Stephenson's lawsuit were chronicled this week in "Trial Lawyers Inc.: Asbestos, A Report on the Asbestos Litigation Industry 2008," by the New York-based Manhattan Institute.

"It's like a high volume sales process," said James Copland, the report's author, detailing what he dubs the "Asbestos Claims Assembly Line," which begins with late night television and Internet ads seeking potential clients, and concludes with hefty settlements and legal fee rewards for the lawyers, if not the allegedly aggrieved themselves.

Copeland dissects the domino effect of these asbestos cases, explaining how a deluge of lawsuits stemming from the use of a legal product over four decades has driven some 80 U.S. companies into bankruptcy while creating a lucrative courthouse industry and some very rich lawyers.

Businesses are footing the bill. Fresh claims continue to appear with no end in sight. According to Copland, corporations have paid out $70 billion in asbestos settlements and nearly 60 percent of that--$40 billion--went to lawyers. That's billions of dollars divided up by lawyers such as local legends Wayne Reaud and Walter Umphrey.

Reaud, according to a 2003 report in the Weekly Standard, "made a billion" suing oil companies on Texas' Gulf Coast over asbestos use. Umphrey opened his Beaumont-based firm in 1969, the right time to ride the asbestos litigation wave. According to Forbes Magazine, he made $19 million in 1995 and Reaud made $26 million.

The irony is Ward Stephenson, who died in 1973, lost that first asbestos case but won on a second try, reaping a measly $79,000 settlement--one of those rare instances where it didn't pay to be first.

One has to wonder: would Stephenson respect the asbestos litigation industry he indirectly inspired? At first glance, to be sure, it's hard to believe he'd even recognize it.

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