In 1960, I was a 3rd grade student at David Crockett Elementary School in Bryan, Texas. Me and my friends would frequently fish for crawdads in a creek near the school. The creek was fed by water from the Bryan Municipal Lake. One day there were more crayfish that we had ever seen; they were all dead, floating in a green foam-like substance. No crawdads were ever seen in that creek again.
A few years later me and my friends would dive for golf balls in the lake to sell back to the golf pro shop. When I was in college, my folks had a place on the Brazos River where we would run trot lines to catch catfish. We would seine the Bryan Municipal Lake to get Bait fish for the trot lines.
In the 1990’s it was revealed that a cotton poison (arsenic) manufacturer named Elf Atochem had dumped Arsenic into our town. First they put Arsenic into the Municipal Lake for many years and when that was finally curtailed, arsenic was discharged repeatedly and illegally into the air over our town. In recorded history there had never been a toxic arsenic experience of this magnitude for this duration. People began noticing that families who lived near the plant had numerous health problems. The cancer rates for the exposure area were off the charts. Tragically a great number of the children born to mothers who lived there had serious birth defects during pregnancy.
An ex-employee of Elf Atochem had been screwed out of his retirement by the company so he blew the whistle on them. A massive Toxic Tort Claim Action suit was filed in Federal Court in Houston. Many members of the Class happened to be clients of mine, so they hired me to represent them in court.
When I realized there was a connection between Elf Atochem and the dead crawdads and the poisoning of Bryan Municipal Lake I almost came unglued. I thought about myself and all the other children playing in that poison lake and I became very angry. You might even say over the year I went mad; because the case became an obsession with me.
Besides representing a number of individual claimants, I was named as Class Counsel for the cancer victims in the Class. I spent years and years working on the case trying to get justice for the families who had been needlessly devastated by this criminal toxic exposure.
There were at least two massive obstacles in the case.
1. Since there had never been so much arsenic exposure before there was no basis for comparison and virtually no research to show the results of a massive continuous exposure.
2. Because of the myths of “Tort Reform” being sold to the public; the court favored corporate wrong doers like Elf Atochem and would protect them for the people they injured.
Even if a lawsuit were successful there would be years and years of appeals with the spectra of corporations and their insurers going out of business before any money could be recovered.
The defendants hired powerful and talented law firms from across the country in addition to the famous Vinson Elkins firm in Houston. As a tail grabbing street lawyer from Bryan, Texas I was impressed with the quality of my competition. After a while I got tired of them repeating the line that we couldn’t prove that arsenic exposure was harmful to people’s health. No scientific evidence, blah, blah, blah.
Finally at one of the settlement conferences, I heard that line once too often and I told that Silk Stocking, big Dawg how I really felt:
Phil: I want to know if you will be willing to put your asshole where your mouth is.
Yankee Big Dawg Lawyer: I beg your pardon.
Phil: You don’t think arsenic can hurt you, come on down to Bryan and we will give you an Arsenic Water Enema and see what happens.
Yankee Big Dawg Lawyer: There is no reason to be uncivilized.
Phil: I think it was pretty F_ _ _ ing uncivilized for your people to poison our town.
The case was finally settled in 2001; we decided to recover what we could for the people in the Class, not what they really deserved. In the years since, I have come to believe that we made the right call; because a whole lot of people getting something is better than all of them getting nothing.
In retrospect I am extremely proud of my work on the Elf Atochem cases. It isn’t often you get to hold corporate criminals responsible for things they did in your childhood.