California Dreamin': Texas asbestos firms head west in search of new plaintiffs

Marilyn Tennissen Mar. 26, 2009, 7:21am


Asbestos litigation may be slowing down in Texas, but not for Texas law firms. Some of the biggest asbestos firms in the Lone Star state are now heading west to open offices in California where the future of asbestos litigation is looking sunny.

According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Daily Journal, "Large plaintiffs' firms from states like Texas and Illinois, traditional hotbeds of asbestos-related activity that have been slowed by rule changes designed to make it more difficult for cases to reach trial, are now setting up shop in Los Angeles."

Dallas power house Baron & Budd is one of those, opening an office on Wilshire Boulevard in posh Beverly Hills.

The firm first set up an office there in 2007, and has brought in dozens of multi-million dollar settlements or won jury verdicts for its asbestos clients. While asbestos suits in Texas are frequently filed on behalf of refinery or other heavy industry workers, the suits in California target workers in the construction business or those who worked in shipyards.

In February, the firm negotiated what a press release called a "sizeable settlement" on behalf of a former navy man and his wife.

The man had allegedly been exposed to asbestos in the boiler rooms of two naval destroyers where he worked to repair steam valves. The firm argued the valves contained asbestos packing and gaskets.

Last March, a jury in San Francisco awarded $7 million to former actress and singer who worked with her husband doing home remodeling jobs part time for about 30 years.

According to a story in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Superior Court jury assessed damages at $20 million and assigned 30 percent of the responsibility to Georgia Pacific Corp., the only defendant in the trial. The rest of the damages will go unpaid, it said, but the couple previously reached confidential settlements with other manufacturers.

Baron & Budd called the verdict "one of the largest asbestos verdicts of its kind."

In November 2007, a $3.6 million settlement was obtained for an 81-year-old construction worker one day before a San Francisco jury was to deliberate. Defendants were companies that made or distributed joint compound that allegedly contained asbestos and included Bondex, Kaiser-Gypsum, Hamilton Materials and Kelly Moore.

Baron & Budd brought several young Texas attorneys to its West Coast offices. One whose name appears on many of the asbestos suits is John Langdoc.

Langdoc attended the Baylor College of Medicine before law school. According to his firm profile, he now uses his medical background "to fight phony science funded by corporate defendants to avoid responsibility."

According to the Daily Journal, "Another huge player, Dallas' Waters & Kraus, first opened a small Los Angeles office in 2001. But it didn't develop a prominent presence until 2006, when it merged with the plaintiffs' firm Paul & Janofsky, becoming Waters, Kraus & Paul in Los Angeles."

The name change recognized the work of attorney Gary Paul and was official in January, a firm press release stated. The renaming occurred at the same time the firm opened a branch in San Francisco.
The firm's Web site lists several of Paul's cases over the past four years that have brought in enormous non-economic damages for plaintiffs.

One of the largest is Davis vs. American Standard in October 2007. The plaintiff was 74 years old and had been a boiler tender during the Korean War and then a pipefitter at several companies including American Pipe and Shell Oil. Paul convinced a jury to award Davis $35 million, with $25 million of that awarded for pain and suffering and $10 million for loss of consortium.

In a March 2008 case, a rigger at a Mobile refinery in California was awarded $6 million for pain and suffering and a total of $9.4 million from defendants including Foster Wheeler. The plaintiff was one of the first to receive damages for "bystander exposure" because he worked in the vicinity of asbestos-containing products.

In June, a craftsman from Warner Bros. received $5.4 million, of which only $400,000 went to cover medical expenses. In the suit against Bondex, Kaiser Gypsum and others, the plaintiff worked near set constructors who used joint compound that contained asbestos.

In the Daily Journal story, Mark A. Behrens, a Washington, D.C., attorney with defense firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon noted the influx of plaintiffs' firms coming into the state, and specifically to Los Angeles, means there must be new profit to be had.

"Common sense tells me they aren't going out there because they like the weather," Behrens said.

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