The litigators, p.24
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       The Litigators, p.24

           John Grisham

  will give you $7 million for a death that was caused by heart disease completely unrelated to our drug. And the way we litigate, a trial is three years away. That’s a long time to sit and think about $7 million.”

  Gant abruptly stood and said, “Thank you for your time, Mr. Koane. I’ll see myself out.”

  “When you leave, Mr. Gant, our offer of $7 million comes off the table. You go home with zero.”

  Gant stutter-stepped slightly, then regained his stride. “See you in court,” he said, tight-lipped, and left through the door.

  Two hours later, Gant called on his cell. Seemed the Maxwell family had reconsidered, came to its senses, at the prodding of their trusted lawyer, of course, and, well, $7 million sounded pretty damn good after all. Layton Koane carefully walked him through each issue at stake, and Gant was happily on board with all of it.

  After the call, Koane relayed the news to Reuben Massey.

  “I doubt if he ever talked to the family,” Koane said. “I think he assured them of $5 million, said what the hell and rolled the dice with twenty, and is a happy boy going home with a settlement of $7 million. He’ll be a hero.”

  “And we’ve dodged a bullet, the first one to miss in a long time,” Massey said.


  In federal court, David filed a lawsuit alleging all manner of fair labor violations by a shady drainage contractor called Cicero Pipe. The job was a large water-treatment plant on the South Side, of which the defendant had a $60 million piece. The plaintiffs were three undocumented workers from Burma and two from Mexico. The violations covered many more workers, but most refused to join the lawsuit. There was too much fear of coming forward.

  According to David’s research, the Department of Labor (DOL) and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had reached an uneasy truce regarding the mistreatment of illegal immigrants. The steadfast principle of unhindered access to justice overrode (slightly) the country’s need to regulate immigration. Therefore, an undocumented worker courageous enough to fight a crooked employer would not be subjected to scrutiny by ICE, at least not while engaged in the labor dispute. David explained this repeatedly to the workers, and the Burmese, with Soe Khaing’s prodding, eventually found the nerve to file suit. Others, from Mexico and Guatemala, were too frightened by the idea of risking what little money they were being paid. One of the Burmese workers estimated there were at least thirty men, all of them thought to be undocumented, being paid $200 a week in cash for eighty hours or more of hard labor.

  The potential damages were impressive. The minimum wage was $8.25, and federal law also required $12.38 for any hour over forty per week. For eighty hours, each worker was due $825.20 per week, or $625.20 more than he was being paid. Though exact dates were hard to pin down, David’s best guess was that the current scam by Cicero Pipe had been under way for at least thirty weeks. The law allowed liquidated damages of twice the unpaid wages, so each of his five clients was entitled to about $37,500. The law also allowed the judge to impose court costs and attorneys’ fees on a defendant found liable.

  Oscar reluctantly agreed to allow David to file the lawsuit. Wally could not be found. He was burning up the streets looking for large people.

  Three days after the lawsuit was filed, an anonymous caller threatened to cut David’s throat if the lawsuit was not dismissed immediately. David reported the call to the police. Oscar advised him to purchase a handgun and keep it in his briefcase. David refused. The following day, an anonymous letter threatened his life and named his pals—Oscar Finley, Wally Figg, even Rochelle Gibson.

  The thug walked briskly along Preston as if hurrying home at such a late hour. It was just after 2:00 a.m., the late July air still thick and warm. Male, white, age thirty, an impressive rap sheet, and not much between the ears. Slung over his shoulder was a cheap gym bag, and inside was a two-liter plastic jug of gasoline, tightly sealed. He took a quick right and darted low onto the narrow porch of the law office. All lights were off, inside and out. Preston was asleep; even the massage parlor had finally wound down.

  If AC had been awake, he might have heard the slight rattle of the doorknob as the thug gently checked to see if someone had forgotten to lock up. The lock had not been forgotten. AC was asleep in the kitchen. Oscar, though, was awake on the sofa, in his pajamas, under a quilt, thinking about how happy he’d become since moving out.

  The thug eased along the front porch, stepped down, and scooted low around the building until he came to the back door. His strategy was to get inside and detonate his crude little bomb. Two liters of gasoline on a wooden floor with curtains and books nearby would gut the old house before a fire crew got there. He shook the door—it too was locked—then quickly jimmied it with a screwdriver. It swung open as he took one step inside. Everything was dark.

  A dog growled, then two extremely loud shots rang out. The thug screamed and fell off the back steps into a small neglected flower bed. Oscar stood over him. A quick glance revealed a wound just above his right knee.

  “Don’t! Please!” the thug begged.

  Carefully, coldly, Oscar shot him in the other leg.

  Two hours later, Oscar, partially dressed now, was chatting with two policemen at the table. All three were sipping coffee. The thug was at the hospital, in surgery—two damaged legs but no chance of dying. His name was Justin Bardall, and when he wasn’t playing with fire and getting shot, he operated a bulldozer for Cicero Pipe. “Idiots, idiots, idiots,” Oscar kept saying.

  “But he wasn’t supposed to get caught,” said one of the cops, laughing.

  At that moment, two detectives were in Evanston knocking on the door of the man who owned Cicero Pipe. It was the beginning of a long day for him.

  Oscar explained that he was going through a divorce and looking for an apartment. When he wasn’t at a hotel, he slept on the office sofa. “I’ve owned this place for twenty-one years,” he said. He knew one of the cops and had seen the other one around. Neither had the slightest concern over the shooting. It was a clear-cut case of protecting one’s property, though Oscar’s narrative omitted the unnecessary wounding of the second leg. In addition to the two-liter bottle of gas, the gym bag contained a strip of cotton cloth doused with what appeared to be kerosene and several strips of cardboard. It was a modified Molotov cocktail, but not one to be tossed. The police guessed that the cardboard was to be used as kindling. It was a laughable effort at arson, but then it doesn’t take a genius to start a fire.

  While they chatted, a television news van parked on the street in front of the office. Oscar put on his tie and got himself filmed.

  A few hours later, during the fourth firm meeting, David took the news hard but still insisted he would not carry a gun. Rochelle kept a cheap pistol in her purse, so three of the four were armed. Reporters were calling. The story was growing by the moment.

  “Remember,” Wally repeated to his colleagues, “we’re a boutique firm specializing in Krayoxx cases. Everybody got that?”

  “Yeah, yeah,” Oscar chimed in. “And what about Burmese labor law violations?”

  “That too.”

  The meeting broke up when a reporter banged on the front door.

  It was soon evident that no law would be practiced that day at Finley & Figg. David and Oscar talked to the Tribune and the Sun-Times. Details were being passed along. Mr. Bardall was out of surgery, locked in his room, and not talking to anyone but his lawyer. The owner of Cicero Pipe and two of his superintendents had been arrested and released on bail. The general contractor on the water-treatment project was a blue-chip firm out of Milwaukee, and it was promising to investigate matters quickly and thoroughly. The job site was shut down. No undocumented worker would go near it.

  David finally left before noon, quietly informing Rochelle he was needed in court somewhere. He drove home, collected Helen, who was looking more pregnant by the day, and took her to lunch. He explained recent events—the death threats, the thug and his intentions, Oscar
and his defense of the firm, and the growing interest from the press. He downplayed any danger and assured her the FBI was on top of things.

  “Are you worried?” she asked.

  “Not at all,” he said, unconvincingly. “But there could be something in the papers tomorrow.”


  Indeed there was. Big photos of Oscar in the metro sections of both the Tribune and the Sun-Times. In all fairness to the press, how many stories do you get wherein an old lawyer is bunking at his office and shoots an intruder who is carrying a Molotov cocktail designed to burn down the building in retaliation for the firm’s filing of a wage dispute involving undocumented workers who are being abused by a company that, years ago, had links to organized crime? Oscar was being portrayed as a fearless gunslinger from the Southwest Side, and, by the way, one of the country’s leading mass tort specialists in the assault on Varrick Labs and its dreadful drug Krayoxx. The Tribune ran a smaller photo of David, as well as shots of the owner of Cicero Pipe and his lieutenants as they were being hauled into jail.

  The entire alphabet was rushing in—FBI, DOL, ICE, INS, OSHA, DHS (Homeland Security), OFCCP (Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs)—and most had something to say to the reporters. The job site was shut down for the second day, and the prime contractor was screaming. Finley & Figg was again besieged by reporters, investigators, Krayoxx hopefuls, and more than the usual riffraff from the street. Oscar, Wally, and Rochelle kept their weapons close. Young David remained blissfully naive.

  Two weeks later, Justin Bardall left the hospital in a wheelchair. He and his boss, along with one other, had been indicted on numerous charges by a federal grand jury, and their lawyers were already discussing the possibility of plea bargains. His left fibula was shattered and more surgery would be needed, but his doctors expected a full recovery with time. He had mentioned to his lawyers, his boss, and the police that the shattering of his left fibula had been unnecessary; the shot was taken after he’d been wounded and was no longer a threat, but he found no sympathy. The general reaction could be summed up by a detective who said, “You’re lucky he didn’t blow your head off.”


  Jerry Alisandros finally made good on a promise. He was extremely busy organizing the settlement negotiations, and according to the associate Wally spoke to, he, Jerry, simply didn’t have the time to spend on the phone with the dozens of lawyers he was juggling. But in the third week of July, he finally sent in the experts.

  The company’s name was meaningless—Allyance Diagnostic Group, or ADG, as it preferred to be called. As best Wally could tell, ADG was an Atlanta-based team of medical technicians who did nothing but travel the country running tests on people who were clamoring to profit from Jerry’s latest mass tort attack. As instructed, Wally rented two thousand square feet in a dingy strip mall, a space that had once housed a low-end pet supply store. He hired a contractor to erect walls and doors and a cleaning service to fix things up. The front windows were covered with brown paper; there was no signage. He rented a few cheap chairs and tables and a desk and installed a phone and a copier. All bills were sent by Wally to an assistant in Jerry’s firm who did nothing but keep the books dealing with the Krayoxx litigation.

  When the space was ready, ADG moved in and went to work. Its team consisted of three technicians, all properly attired in aqua surgical scrubs. Each had a stethoscope. They looked so official that even Wally at first figured they were highly skilled and credentialed. They were not, but they had tested thousands of potential plaintiffs. Their leader was Dr. Borzov, a cardiologist from Russia who had made a lot of money diagnosing patients/clients for Jerry Alisandros and a dozen other trial lawyers around the country. Dr. Borzov rarely saw an obese person who wasn’t suffering from a significant medical problem that could be pinned on the mass-tort-drug-of-the-month. He never testified in court—his accent was too thick and his résumé was too thin—but he was worth his weight in gold in the screening rooms.

  David, because he was the de facto paralegal for all (now) 430 non-death Krayoxx clients, and Wally, because he had hustled them all together, were both present when ADG began its assembly line. On schedule, three clients arrived at 8:00 a.m. and were greeted with coffee, Wally, and a cute ADG technician in scrubs and white rubber hospital clogs. The paperwork took ten minutes and was primarily designed to ensure that the client had indeed taken Krayoxx for more than six months. The first client was led into another room where ADG had installed its own echocardiogram and two other technicians were waiting. One explained the procedure—“We’re just taking a digital picture of your heart”—while the other helped the client onto an official, heavily fortified hospital bed that ADG hauled around the country, along with the echocardiogram. As they probed the patient’s chest with the sonar, Dr. Borzov entered the room and nodded slightly at the patient. His bedside manner was never reassuring, but then he had no real patients. He wore a full-length white exam coat, had his name stenciled above the left pocket, and had his own stethoscope for good measure and effect, and when he spoke, his accent conveyed a sense of expertise. He studied the screen, frowned because he always frowned, then left the room.

  The assault on Krayoxx was fueled by research purporting to show that the drug weakened the seals around the aortic valve, thus causing a decrease in mitral valve regurgitation. The echocardiogram measured aortic sufficiency, and a decrease of 30 percent was excellent news for the lawyers. Dr. Borzov reviewed the graphs immediately, always eager to find another weakened aortic valve.

  Each exam took twenty minutes, so they did three per hour, about twenty-five each day, six days a week. Wally had leased the space for a month. ADG billed the Zell & Potter, Finley & Figg litigation account $1,000 for each exam, with the bills going to Jerry in Florida.

  Before that stop, ADG and Dr. Borzov had been in Charleston and Buffalo. From Chicago, they were headed to Memphis, then Little Rock. Another ADG unit was covering the West Coast with a Serbian doctor reading the graphs. Another was harvesting gold in Texas. The Zell & Potter Krayoxx web covered forty states, seventy-five lawyers, and almost 80,000 clients.

  To avoid the chaos of the office, David hung around the strip mall and chatted with his clients, none of whom he’d ever met. Generally speaking, they were happy to be there, worried about whatever damage the drug had done to their hearts, hopeful of some type of recovery, overweight and terribly out of shape, but pleasant enough. Black, white, old, young, male, female—obesity and high cholesterol ran the gamut. Every client he spoke to had been thrilled with the drug, delighted with its results, and was now anxious about finding a replacement. Gradually, David chatted up the ADG technicians and learned something of their work, though they were fairly closemouthed. Dr. Borzov would hardly speak to him.

  After hanging around for three days, David could tell that the ADG team was not pleased with their testing. Their $1,000 exams were producing little evidence of aortic insufficiency, but there were a few potential cases.

  On the fourth day, the air-conditioning system crashed, and Wally’s rented space turned into a sweatshop. It was August, temperature above ninety, and when the landlord refused to return calls, the ADG crew threatened to leave. Wally hauled in box fans and ice cream and begged them to stay and finish the screening. They plowed on, the twenty-minute exams becoming fifteen, then ten, with Borzov barely scanning the graphs on the sidewalk while he smoked cigarettes.


  Judge Seawright set the hearing for August 10, the last possible date on any judge’s calendar before the system shut down for summer vacation. There were no motions pending, no fights brewing, all discovery had proceeded with remarkable cooperation. Varrick Labs, so far, had been unduly forthcoming with documents, witnesses, and experts. Nadine Karros had filed only a handful of benign motions, all of which the judge quickly dispensed with. On the plaintiff’s side, the Zell & Potter lawyers had been remarkably efficient with their requests and filings.

eawright was monitoring the settlement gossip. His clerks scoured the financial press and watched the serious bloggers. Varrick Labs had issued no formal statement regarding settlement, but it was obvious the company knew how to leak. Its share price dipped as low as $24.50, but the buzz about a massive settlement had moved it back to $30.00.

  When the two packs of lawyers were in place, Judge Seawright assumed the bench and welcomed everyone. He apologized for calling the hearing in August—“the most difficult month of the year for busy people”—but he felt strongly that the two sides should get together before everyone scattered. He quickly went through his discovery checklist to make sure both sides were behaving. There were no complaints.

  Jerry Alisandros and Nadine Karros were so polite to each other it was almost silly. Wally sat to Jerry’s right, as if he would be the go-to guy in a courtroom brawl. Behind him, and wedged among a group of Zell & Potter lawyers, were David and Oscar. Since the shooting and the publicity, Oscar was getting out more, enjoying the attention. He was also smiling and already considered himself a bachelor.

  Changing subjects, Judge Seawright said, “I’m hearing a lot of chatter about a settlement, one big global settlement, as they’re called these days in this business. I want to know what’s going on. As fast as this particular case has come together, it is now in a posture to be placed on my trial calendar. However, if a settlement is likely, then why bother? Can you shed any light on this issue, Ms. Karros?”

  She stood, all eyes on her, and took a few elegant steps to the podium. “Your Honor, as you probably know, Varrick Labs has been involved in a number of complicated lawsuits, and the company has its own way of approaching a settlement that involves many plaintiffs. I have not been authorized to initiate negotiations in the Klopeck case, nor have I been authorized by my client to make public statements on the issue of settlement. As far as I’m concerned, we are preparing for trial.”

  “Fair enough. Mr. Alisandros?”

  They exchanged places at the podium, and Jerry offered up a sappy smile. “Likewise, Your Honor, we are preparing for trial in this case. However, I must say that I, as a member of the Plaintiffs’ Litigation Committee, have had several informal and quite preliminary conversations with the company regarding a global settlement. I believe Ms. Karros is aware that these conversations are taking place, but, as she said, she has not been authorized to discuss them. I don’t represent Varrick so I am not burdened with such constraints. However, the company has not requested that I remain silent about our discussions. In addition, Your Honor, if we reach the point of formal negotiations, I doubt that Ms. Karros will be involved. I know from prior experience that Varrick handles these in-house.”

  “Do you anticipate formal negotiations?” asked Seawright.

  There was a long pause as many held their breath. Nadine Karros managed to look curious, though she had a clear view of the big
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