The Lawsuit from Hell

Three thousand plaintiffs, five hundred defendants, three hundred lawyers, and no evidence: An endless East Texas courtroom battle over “chemical AIDS” is a case study in what’s wrong with our legal system.

FEW PLACES IN TEXAS ARE more humble than Daingerfield, a town of 2,655 residents hidden away in the rolling hills of Northeast Texas. Many of the downtown storefronts are abandoned. The parking lot at the bank is usually empty, and the movie theater tries to stir up business with 99-cent admission. Each day, a couple of Kansas City Southern trains pass through the middle of town. They never stop.

Just on the other side of the railroad tracks, however, is Daingerfield’s lone symbol of affluence—a two-story, 120-year-old building that cost at least $1 million to renovate. Every brick on the building has been cured in an open-pit fire for historical authenticity. A white gazebo stands on one side of the building, and a flowing fountain and garden are on the other. Inside the lobby are Oriental rugs, elegant swooped-back chairs, and lighted glass cabinets holding Native American pottery, and a staircase right out of Gone With the Wind leads to an office on the second floor. There, a kindly looking 56-year-old man, five feet eight inches tall, sits behind a desk the size of a billiard table. The man’s name is Harold Nix, and he is one of the richest and most feared plaintiff’s attorneys in Texas. “I suppose,” he says in a drawl as soft as cotton, “you want to know why everyone is cussin’ me.”

In 1987, when he was barely known outside this corner of the state, Nix began suing companies from around the country that had shipped chemicals and other products to Lone Star Steel, a large steel mill located a few miles from Daingerfield. He argued that these products were toxic and that the companies—from Fortune 500 giants such as Exxon to a tiny machine shop near Daingerfield—had caused Lone Star employees to come down with a host of illnesses and life-threatening diseases. By 1988 he represented more than three thousand workers and ex-workers—some of whom had worked at the plant for decades, others for just a few weeks—and by 1990 he had named 538 companies as defendants in the lawsuit.

If ever there was a case that seemed destined for a chapter in a law school textbook about frivolous lawsuits, Sam Fowler, Jr., et al. v. Union Carbide Corp., et al. was it. Although some Lone Star employees were obviously sick, it soon became clear that Nix didn’t yet have a shred of evidence directly linking any of their diseases to any products that had been shipped into that plant. Nor had Nix found a single medical expert willing to verify his theory that the various chemicals shipped to Lone Star had combined to create what he described in court filings as “chemical AIDS,” a condition that “reduced and in many cases destroyed the body’s ability to attack and fight off sickness, disease and death.”

But Fowler began to take on an eerie life of its own. Scores of expensive defense attorneys, a few charging their corporate clients more than $400 an hour, headed to Daingerfield to do battle with Nix. Depositions were taken, interrogatories filed, motions for summary judgment requested. So many lawyers arrived for one hearing that the judge had to set up his courtroom in the Daingerfield High School auditorium. The pretrial legal papers piled so high that they overflowed the filing cabinets at the district clerk’s office in Morris County (where Daingerfield is located) and were stacked in an unused cell at the county jail.

Today, nearly a decade after the lawsuit began, Fowler has become the largest mass products-liability lawsuit in the United States, a maddening morass of litigation that has ensnared hundreds of lawyers and generated untold millions of dollars in legal fees. Although the case has produced more than three million pages of documents, not a single trial has been scheduled for any of the three-thousand-plus plaintiffs, and no one is able to say when—or whether—a trial will ever be scheduled. The attorneys periodically gather for hearings to rail away at one another, each side accusing the other of suppressing evidence and delaying the case. “It’s a nightmare,” said Judge B. D. Moye, the embattled state district court judge who presided over the case from its inception until his retirement last year. “That’s what it is—a procedural nightmare.”

In the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens’ epic novel Bleak House told the story of the endless lawsuit known as Jarndyce and Jarndyce—a venomous case that was so confusing even the participants never knew what it was about or how they could get it resolved. Jarndyce and Jarndyce was fiction: Dickens used it as a metaphor for a society that had lost itself to squabbles, cynicism, and contempt. But Fowler is real. Even though almost nothing is happening, the defense lawyers keep billing their clients—many of them major U.S. corporations—top-dollar fees, and Nix rakes in a fortune. His firm has taken an estimated $26 million of the $69 million in out-of-court settlements from various companies that have surrendered to his demands. Yet he still cannot show if the workers’ diseases were caused by specific products shipped to Lone Star Steel.

I started coming to Daingerfield last fall—and would return half a dozen times more—to try to understand how a single lawsuit in an isolated East Texas town could ignite such chaos in corporate boardrooms across America. What I found was a case study in the way the American court system allows lawsuits to fester at the expense of justice. Because of vaguely written laws governing civil procedure, and because of judges who are unwilling to set stringent evidentiary requirements in their courtrooms, smart lawyers can slow the progress of a civil dispute to an almost imperceptible crawl. For what they often believe are the most noble purposes, plaintiff’s lawyers resort to duplicity, delay, and bare-knuckled legal brinkmanship to try to force a company to settle. Defense lawyers use the same tactics to keep a lawsuit away from an unpredictable judge and jury.

I think you’ll find that I’m trying, as best I can, to help

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