Our settlement machine

The SE Texas Record Jul. 26, 2008, 9:20am

Another Jefferson County asbestos lawsuit moved to the brink of trial last week before it settled.

These local suits usually settle for good business reasons that have little to do with justice and fair play.

Asbestos defendants are wary of taking their chances before our local courts, even when they absolutely believe they are not guilty and can prove it.

So last week, Georgia-Pacific paid Belinda Martin and her lawyers at Brent Coon & Associates an "undisclosed" sum of money to make the case go away. We'll never know how much it was--but apparently the company feels it made a prudent business decision. Given the cold courtroom reality here, it's hard to disagree.

Our court system exists to dispense justice even-handedly. But here it too often seems to provide undue leverage to some local plaintiff's lawyers whose jaundiced view makes it more like a cash station.

Georgia-Pacific might have been able to disprove Ms. Martin's often wild accusations at trial-- she says more than 110 companies are responsible for the death of her husband. But they declined. It's hard to compete when the referees seem determined to guarantee a win for the other guys.

Exhibit A is the recent travesty in the case of Willis Whisnant v. DuPont. No doubt, that legal stretch looms large in the decision-making process of every Jefferson County defendant.

In a defense-hostile courtroom run by plaintiff-friendly Judge Donald Floyd, DuPont proved its innocence at trial. It presented evidence and convinced a jury that it wasn't responsible for the alleged horrors of which it was accused.

But the accuser, clout-heavy, multi-millionaire plaintiff's attorney Glen Morgan, had too much at stake to fail. Later, without reason or explanation, Judge Floyd came to the rescue. He nullified the jury's verdict.

Even when defendants win in Jefferson County, the scales of justice somehow turns them into losers, it seems.

DuPont paid millions in trial costs to secure its victory. Now, rather than spend millions more, re-trying the same case in the same hostile environment, it will have to consider making a tough business decision.

That decision is to do what Georgia-Pacific did: settle, pay up and move along.

Next. Keep the line at the cash station moving.

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