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.

But while Pampa united, outside elements were descending that would later divide the town.

"There were some horrendous things that went on immediately after the explosion that, frankly, didn't make me proud to be a lawyer," says C. Vernon Hartline, who at the time was a partner with a Dallas law firm that defended Celanese in litigation following the explosion.

Hartline says lawyers from across the country "literally harassed" the widow of a man killed in the explosion "to the point where I went out and bought her an answering machine so she wouldn't have to answer the phone. It was a pretty sad commentary, from what are really good people that were not used to what we see all the time and take for granted in the big cities."

One of the first post-explosion lawsuits against Celanese was filed in December 1987 in Harris County by Charles Haden. Under Texas law, he was able to bring the suit in a county 600 miles from Pampa because his client, Bob Wilson, was a Houston resident who had been living temporarily in Pampa and working at the Celanese plant when it exploded. Haden's lawsuit immediately attracted the interest of Amarillo lawyers Tom Upchurch and Wayne Barfield, who were in the process of gathering clients in Pampa for their own action against Celanese.

The three attorneys formed a joint venture that also included Haden's Houston associates, John Palisin and Marc Linsey. In December 1988, the new partners amended Haden's negligence suit to include allegations that Celanese had been releasing toxic chemicals and by-products into the environment that had been causing cancer and birth defects in area residents since the plant opened. The suit, which asked for an unspecified amount of damages, was filed on behalf of contractors who worked in the plant, people who lived nearby and area children born with birth defects.

Hartline says there's a simple reason the case was pursued in Houston. In Pampa and Gray County, he says, "there was a huge sentiment at the time that anybody that sued the company would not get the fairest of trials. And there was also a huge sentiment at the time that Harris County juries would give away the farm."

Over the next five years, until it finally came to trial in Chambers' court, the lawsuit went through several permutations. In September 1990, it was split into two cases: one for those affected by the explosion and another -- which became known as the "toxic tort" case -- for those claiming illness through longtime exposure to emissions. In December 1990, the explosion half of the suit was settled out of court, leaving the toxic tort case as a separate suit.

In a third lawsuit, known as the Kingsmill water case and filed in Sweetwater near Abilene, Upchurch, Barfield and Haden sued Celanese in August 1992 on behalf of the residents of Kingsmill Camp, a tiny village a quarter-mile north of the plant, who had learned their community-owned water well had been contaminated with benzene.

The three lawyers were the only constant players on this shifting field of litigation, and as the case wore on they were to provide moments of high drama, low comedy and, in the end, when they couldn't stand one other, a destructive pathos.

There was the bombastic, hard-driving Upchurch, known as "Redbird" in Amarillo for his flame-colored hair and love of Lear jets. A World War II buff, Upchurch became so obsessed with beating Celanese, which he often compared to Nazi Germany, that when it all fell apart he threatened to kill himself.

Then there was the charismatic Barfield, who, his secretary once observed, "can get a whole lot of things done" because "he's got a way about him and these women just roll over." But Barfield was frustrated by Upchurch's apparent unwillingness to let him loose in the courtroom, where his skills had made him such a success in Amarillo. After the trial, it became Barfield's nearly impossible duty to dole out $15 million to the clients, many of whom, he would be forced to admit, didn't have claim to a penny.

Charlie Haden -- known in Houston legal circles as the "Tiger" for his tenacious courtroom manner -- seems a bit out of place in this legal triumvirate. A Sunday school teacher known for reciting lengthy passages of Scripture from memory, Haden retired after the toxic tort case. Perhaps because he lived and worked so far away from the plaintiffs, his role in the toxic tort case was less clearly defined. He had told his clients that he was in charge of gathering and presenting the medical proof that they had been poisoned. Despite his frequent comments to the contrary, he never had that proof.

As for their clients, it's safe to say that before November 1987 most of them had little need for attorneys, nor did they consider it likely they'd ever get something for nothing. They were apparently convinced otherwise on both counts, and the great majority of them eventually took their settlements and went away, if not happy, at least not angry enough to sue their former attorneys.

Dozens of them didn't, however. Though they also received some money, it wasn't enough to overcome the suspicions that made them tape record what their lawyers told them.

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