No swine flu pig out

The SE Texas Record May 29, 2009, 6:37pm

Because of our shared border with Mexico, South Texas became America's "ground zero" during the recent swine flu scare.

Now our region also may play a starring role in post-scare opportunism that inevitably follows such a national calamity.

As reported this week by The Record, two Austin plaintiff's lawyers have announced plans to file a $1 billion lawsuit in Cameron County. It wants to pin the swine flu death of Harlingen woman Judy Trunnell on a U.S. pork producer

Marc Rosenthal and J. Lynn Watson have no evidence that Smithfield Foods, which raises pigs in Mexico, had anything to do with swine flu's emergence or Ms. Trunnell's death. But they want a Texas state judge to let them investigate the company, presumably in search of incriminating information -- some hidden smoking gun.

In courthouse halls this is called a fishing expedition. If a judge authorizes an investigation, it provides plaintiff's lawyers with incredible leverage. And that's the point.

Allowing lawyers to conduct discovery on Smithfield raises the stakes no matter what is found. We can't know the motives of Rosenthal and Watson, but there are lawyers who are less interested in proving a case than in ratcheting up pressure on their prey to settle -- to pay them to go away.

The lawyers showed their hand by asking for a headline grabbing sum of "$1 billion." One could surmise such an investigation would be conducted with press agent in tow. Consumer product companies like Smithfield bruise easily in the public spotlight.

The accusation is truly an incredible one: that a single company deserves blame for "starting" swine flu. That's as if this were scientifically possible, or that a company could plausibly be found "responsible" for creating a virus by conducting business in the same manner that hundreds of agribusiness companies do each day.

Scientific investigations concerning the causes of swine flu will be made. What is not needed are court-ordered blame games long on speculation and junk science and short on facts -- where the real goal is less truth than a big and quick pay day.

Rosenthal and Watson's petition should be dropped before it can start.

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