Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Old Men Talking

Early on in my legal career, I did time, significant time, in the trenches known as "Asbestos Litigation". This litigation was HUGE. Thousands upon thousands of cases occurred simultaneously all over the country.

Back then, I worked for a defense firm that represented a couple of manufacturers of asbestos products.  My job (among many others) was to attend the depositions of workers making claims against the companies we represented.  I asked them questions and tried to get them to commit under oath that their exposure was limited to certain places and times and to specific types of asbestos products, with the goal of excluding our clients from liability. I was good at it; good at establishing rapport and getting them to open up and give descriptive answers to my questions.

As a tiny cog in the machinery of this industry-spawned industry, I sat, day after day, in conference rooms with ten or fifteen other lawyers, a court reporter and the plaintiff in exotic locations like Parkersburg, West Virginia and Canton, Ohio.

The plaintiff was usually a man in his 70's or 80's, most often in a flannel shirt neatly tucked into jeans or khaki pants; sometimes in a suit; nearly always visibly nervous. Many were attached to oxygen tanks. They universally removed their caps upon entering the room, with hands that were callused from years of real work.

During his deposition, each man answered questions under oath about his work history, health history and social habits. Generally one lawyer took the lead and then each lawyer would be given an opportunity to ask questions pertinent to his or her client. The plaintiff's own lawyer was present and would occasionally interject with an objection to a question or request for a break. Each deposition lasted nearly a full day.

The rules of this game were well-known to the regular players, but not to the plaintiffs. They all seemed surprised by the collegiality amongst the lawyers and the ease with which we rattled off our questions. They may not have realized we did this every day, for months on end.

The majority of these men had worked out of union halls and were sent to jobs all over the region. Two weeks here, two months there. Many of them had small, battered notebooks in which they had kept track of their jobs over a lifetime of work. Lines of old-fashioned script in different inks covered the pages, along with various smudges, smears and blotches of coffee.

They were pipe fitters, bricklayers, carpenters and laborers. There was a definite hierarchy among them in the real world, but within the confines of a usually windowless conference room, each man was, for perhaps the first time ever, the most important person in the room. Highly educated and well-paid lawyers by the score listened, raptly, as they told their stories. Heroic stories about industrial accidents that nearly killed them, about handling toxic materials with no protection whatsoever, about strikes and labor disputes, about reporting to the union hall each morning hoping for an assignment.

They described their work, adding excruciating levels of detail when asked, baffled that with all of our education, we didn't understand the process of mixing mortar or fitting steam pipes. They would shake their heads in pity at our incomprehensible ignorance, not realizing that our questions were traps we might catch them in later.

I was often the only female in the room other than the court reporter. Most of the lawyers were young men who felt the need to preen before the crowd and were (in my opinion) unnecessarily harsh in their questioning. I usually waited to be the last one to ask my questions rather than join in their jockeying for position.

I know I wasn't supposed to, but I really liked the majority of these gentlemen. Because that's what they were. Not all, but most. I looked them in the eye when they answered, scribbling my notes between questions. I tried hard to keep it friendly and conversational.

They tried hard to maintain their dignity.

"Sexual relations with my wife? That's none of your goddamn business!"

And they were honest.

"Yes, ma'am, I did smoke cigarettes. I was about 12 when I started and I never should have. We didn't know any better back then."

"I smoked Lucky Strikes. No filter."

"No, ma'am, I never did ask for a dust mask to wear. There wasn't none around and we had a job to do. You didn't cause problems if you wanted regular work and I had a family and all."

They built power plants along the Ohio River; factories in Cleveland, Parkersburg and Charleston; hospitals, schools and bridges. Structures we rely upon to this day. They got sick doing it and now were forced to sue for compensation for their injuries. Injuries that were indisputably caused by asbestos, asbestos they couldn't have encountered in their personal lives. Injuries that took away the retirement that they most definitely earned.

These men had lived hard lives and it showed in their red-rimmed eyes, their lined faces and their shaking hands. Yet they didn't complain; not really. They let the medical records speak for themselves. What they did was tell their stories; stories about life as they knew it and lived it. And as far as they were concerned, it had been a good life. They made good money on those union jobs; supported families and proudly spoke of sending kids to college.

When it was all done, all the questions asked and answered, I thanked them. I thanked them for telling us their stories and giving us an opportunity to hear from them directly. I extended my hand to shake theirs. Most often, I received a handshake and a nod in return.

The other lawyers ribbed me about that after the plaintiff and his lawyer left the room.

"Why are you thanking them? They are the ones suing us!"

"Because they are human beings, that's why, you ass."

And then I would escape to my car, feeling sick to my stomach, tears escaping down my cheeks, before collecting myself and driving off to prepare for the next day's stories.


  1. This is a powerful piece. An excellent story and well told. I used to work for a lawyer who did similar work but I don't think she ever felt conflicted about it.

  2. "The plaintiff was usually a man in his 70's or 80's, most often in a flannel shirt neatly tucked into jeans or khaki pants; sometimes in a suit; nearly always visibly nervous. Many were attached to oxygen tanks. They universally removed their caps upon entering the room, with hands that were callused from years of real work."

    Your descriptions of these workers brings me to my knees. I love that you were human enough to realize their immense value and to know that this job was ripping you up inside. Because: awwwwww.

  3. I'm a lawyer. I have worked primarily for defense firms, but most recently as a public defender. I love that you respected these men and the lives that they led. I think that you might have been much more effective as a plaintiff's lawyer. I can imagine your presentation to the jury and how powerful that would be. If you ever go back into practice, your humanity will be an advantage. Screw the good ol' boys.