Of the 60 or so lawyers in the hot, yet well-appointed courtroom, most were wearing blue suits, except for those who wore gray or charcoal suits. They were like a grouping of walking bruises, casting shadows on an uneasy situation. Strangely, though, by Tuesday, when the lawyers gave their closing arguments, the effortlessness with which I fired stupid questions at the lawyers involved in the pre-bankruptcy hearing of Swiss engineering group ABB Ltd.'s proposed $1.2 billion settlement of its asbestos claims astounded even me. It occurred to me then that I love to be paid to unnerve people with stupid questions.
Overall, the hearing was a greed-bath. ABB's lawyers argued that nearly all of the 111,000 consent forms submitted to plaintiffs were in favor of the settlement deal, which will cap asbestos claims against ABB at $1.2 billion and set up a pre-negotiated reorganization, in an effort to restore the financial health of the company. Lawyers of the numerous insurance companies involved argued that the insurance companies weren't consulted on the deal and none of them consented to it.
The settlement involves ABB's Combustion Engineering subsidiary, which made industrial boilers insulated with asbestos and filed for bankruptcy in February. Asbestos was used for insulation and fireproofing into the 1970s. It has been shown to cause asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer and other ailments.
In the end, U.S. Judge Judith Fitzgerald delayed a decision on ABB's proposed deal for two weeks, to allow attorneys time to present additional findings. Lawyers for ABB, cancer victims and insurance companies will present revised findings to Fitzgerald on May 23.
Part of the $1.2 billion settlement would be comprised of a $655 million trust for asbestos injury victims, to be funded by millions of shares of ABB stock. In exchange for the settlement, the company would be off the hook for asbestos injury cases that might be rightfully lodged against them in the future. The whole issue is related, but not linked, to a proposed $100 billion national trust for asbestos victims that would help out such hurting companies as Halliburton.
But this high-stakes lawyer's game also involves real people with health problems that they got by working honestly for a living. Their attorneys are working to get them what compensation they can. Pittsburgh attorney Ted Goldberg, of Goldberg, Persky, Jennings and White, has an interest in the ABB case and declined to comment on it. He did wonder about the plan for the national trust, though. "I think it's very vague as to what is being proposed. It's impossible to comment on it until it's clear what's being proposed," he said.
Similar questions abounded in Fitzgerald's courtroom. Some of the attorneys questioned whether ABB had clearly spelled out who would be in charge of CE after the settlement deal is done. CE has not been an operating company for some time and basically just owns some real estate. The fear of some lawyers and claimants is that CE will go bankrupt without leaving them a way to retrieve their compensation.
Not everyone in the courtroom had a serious grudge or contention -- a fact I was reminded of toward the end of closing arguments on Tuesday afternoon, by a broad-shouldered 50ish guy with an oilman moustache and a Southern drawl. He had a bemused look as he stopped me as I was heading out the courtroom doors during a recess.
"So what do you think of all this?" he said without a trace of guile. "You're about the only one in this courtroom without an axe to grind."
I checked him out; he looked like he'd busted his back to make it up the ladder. He smiled a genuine smile at me, and I remembered I'd chatted briefly with him a week back during a recess in the hearing. He'd been hanging with lawyer Elizabeth Magner, who represents the Select Asbestos Claimants Committee, a group of law firms that represent asbestos victims. So I asked him if he wanted to be quoted.
"No, no, I have no interest in this case. I'm just here to watch it," he said with a laugh. "But I'm curious -- what do you think of all this?"
"He's on our side," Magner said with a knowing look.
"Well, I went to a liberal school," I replied, half-joking. "But no, my opinion doesn't matter. I'll write an objective story. That's my job."
I didn't tell them about "Dread and Repugnance I." Or about the fact that I'd be doing "Dread and Repugnance II," which might feature candid quotes from them.Never trust a reporter.
(This story originally was published in Pulp newsweekly.)