The Toxic Tort Case

It began in the Panhandle with the promise of great riches, only to crash and burn in a Houston courtroom. The wreckage is still smoldering, and the truth is nowhere to be found.

Celanese attorneys and others familiar with the trial say Upchurch, Haden and Barfield realized they could never prove Celanese was responsible for the sickness and birth defects they claimed were rampant in Pampa. And even if they could point to a few compelling cases, an overwhelming majority of their clients were healthy -- aside from some dermatological and respiratory ailments common to Panhandle residents.

But the real story of the toxic tort case is much more complex. And, to what likely will be the eternal regret of Upchurch, Haden and Barfield, that story has been preserved for posterity, thanks to hundreds of hours of taped conversations between the attorneys and their clients.

Like the black-box recordings of a doomed jetliner's flight, the tapes trace the case from its early promise of great riches to its crash-and-burn ending in a Houston courtroom. Made by several clients, the recordings begin in the spring of 1989, when Upchurch orchestrated the formation of an environmental advocacy group to drum up more plaintiffs. The final recordings were made last summer, while a frustrated and angry Barfield struggled to dole out approximately $15 million to the clients, many of whom were also very angry (the other $10 million went toward attorneys fees).

The recordings offer a revealing, in-their-own-words glimpse of three personal-injury lawyers in action. Depending on how you read them, transcripts of the recordings can portray a trio of impassioned idealists who, as Upchurch once put it with characteristic verbal clumsiness, were delivering "a striker blow for freedom" but who, in the end, just couldn't make their case -- though they did manage to put a little money in their clients' pockets.

Or, as some of their onetime clients are now alleging, the transcripts reveal the lawyers as shameless shysters who swept into a small Texas town and struck terror into the hearts of the populace with horrifying images of painful, chemically induced deaths -- all in pursuit of a big payday. And then, when crunch time came and their case was about to be exposed as a sham, they abandoned their clients and made off with millions in contingency fees.

Which interpretation is correct will be determined -- where else? -- in court. A handful of clients have filed fraud and malpractice suits in Harris County against their former attorneys. About 75 others are considering doing the same. And two of the three attorneys, Upchurch and Barfield, are suing them back, charging their former clients with "civil conspiracy."

But as the Houston lawyer representing the angry clients suggests, it will be difficult to add anything new to what's already on tape about the toxic tort case.

"It's like true confessions," says Larry Doherty. "We've got a degree of honest candor you just can't get anywhere else."

DROPCAPPampa, a predictably dusty Panhandle town with an unexpected charm, was founded at the turn of the century and grew to be the heart of the booming Gray County oil patch. By World War II, the industrious little town also had emerged as a major producer of wheat, beef and gun barrels manufactured at the Cabot Corporation plant.

As with dozens of other small Texas towns, however, the collapse of the oil economy in the 1980s brought hard times. Pampa's population, once near 30,000, has dipped to under 20,000. Newtown, a small-town variant of urban sprawl in northeast Pampa, is a sad reminder of an errant optimism. A shopping mall stands largely vacant and the suburban-style strip centers are battling downtown merchants for survival. Even Cabot, which retooled after the war to produce portable drilling rigs, is nothing like it once was.

One reliable feature of the local landscape is Celanese, whose Pampa plant, built in 1952, looms west of town like a gaseous Emerald City. Spread across 750 acres of prairie as flat as a tabletop, it produces 500 million pounds of acetic acid a year, along with 18 other chemicals for use in paints, adhesives and solvents. Celanese is the region's largest employer, paying more than $25 million in wages to about 600 employees and spending $80 million more on local goods and services.

John Gikas, who for almost 50 years has run the Coney Island Cafe in downtown Pampa, says the town owes its survival to Celanese.

"Pampa," he explains, "would be nothing without it."
On November 14, 1987, a ruptured pipe inside the plant spewed hot liquid butane into the air, creating a vapor cloud that caught fire. Two explosions ripped through the plant ten seconds apart, shooting flames 250 feet into the air and shattering windows in Pampa, six miles away. Three workers died and about 40 others were injured in the blast.

The deaths and destruction, which shut down about 75 percent of the plant, stunned Pampa. Most everybody in town knew someone who worked for Celanese. Even as the town mourned the victims, rumors were circulating that the company wouldn't invest the tens of millions of dollars needed to rebuild the plant.

"They're a worldwide corporation. They could put that plant almost anywhere, so that was always a possibility," says Jeff Langley, onetime managing editor of the Pampa News and now an editor at the Amarillo Globe-News.

Three weeks after the explosion, townspeople packed the high-school football stadium for a rally urging Celanese to rebuild. Politicians read speeches, school bands marched and residents waved signs in support of the chemical company, which at that point had committed to reopening only a portion of the damaged plant.

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