What happened to Southeast Texas' mass asbestos filings?

David Yates Sep. 9, 2009, 2:50pm

Boxes full of asbestos case files are stacked up at the Orange County Courthouse.

It's possible that if a person were to lay the asbestos lawsuits filed in Southeast Texas in the early 1990s in a straight line, he or she could build a sidewalk between the Jefferson and Orange courthouses twice over.

Orange County, the birthplace of modern asbestos litigation, is currently home to several cases boasting thousands of plaintiffs – the largest of which is Robert Abernathy vs. AC&S Inc. et al.

Filed in 1992 by the Reaud, Morgan & Quinn (RM&Q) law firm, the suit encumbers more than 4,000 plaintiffs, each of whom blames dozens of corporate defendants for their presumed asbestos illness.

Massive asbestos suits like Abernathy were common business in the early '90s across Southeast Texas.

In fact, the Orange case mirrors one filed in Jefferson County by the Provost Umphrey (PU) law firm, Harold Daniels vs. Pittsburg Corning Corp. et al.

First filed in 1994, the suit's original petition has been amended 141 times and severed roughly 220, with the number of plaintiffs numbering in the thousands.

PU's asbestos lawsuit is so massive that it fills more than 100 boxes and hogs about half of the Jefferson County Courthouse district records vault.

While PU lays claim to Jefferson and RM&Q dominates Orange, both law firms have had their enormous cases subjected to a Houston-based multi district litigation panel, where a Harris County judge makes uniform rulings on the litigation before shipping individual cases back to their original counties for trial.

However, the majority of the cases settle and don't come back, Orange County District Clerk Vickie Edgerly told the Record during a recent interview – a blessing to her and her deputy clerks since asbestos litigation snatches the majority of prized storage space in Orange.

"We build this stuff up faster then we can store it," Edgerly said. "We have limited space availability."

Edgerly says the amount of asbestos litigation filtering through her doors has "dropped off" since the mass filings of the '90s, but the courthouse "still gets a significant amount. It just doesn't come in as hard or fast."

Edgerly attributed the drop off to two factors.

First, she said, most asbestos manufacturers have filed for bankruptcy since the previous decade's lawsuit bombardment. Second, out of state plaintiffs can no longer file in Texas, thanks to a law passed in the late '90s prohibiting the action.

"At one time you could file anywhere in the state of Texas," Edgerly said, adding that the RM&Q asbestos suit identifies plaintiffs from all over the nation, including Louisiana and Alabama.

Attorneys who shop for "friendly" venues to file their suits are known as forum shoppers. Critics of Jefferson and Orange counties have labeled the region as a "plaintiff friendly" venue and a "judicial hellhole."

Orange County Judge Pat Clark, who presides over the lion's share of the county's asbestos litigation, declined to comment on the RM&Q suit, saying it was improper for him to discuss an ongoing case.

Judge Clark, however, did say he hasn't tried a case from the massive asbestos file since 1996 – a trial that included dozens of plaintiffs and defendants and ended in a favorable verdict for the plaintiffs.

Many severed cases from the suit still appear on Judge Clark's 128th District Court docket every month.

Robert Abernathy vs. AC&S Inc. et al, Case No. A920-967

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