Page 37 of The King of Torts

In Reedsburg, the news that Hanna was laying off twelve hundred workers brought the town to a halt. The announcement came in a letter written by Marcus Hanna and given to all employees.

In fifty years, the company had been through only four layoffs. It had weathered cycles and slowdowns and had always worked hard to keep everyone on the payroll. Now that it was in bankruptcy, the rules were different. The company was under pressure to prove to the court and to its creditors that it had a viable financial future.

Events beyond the control of management were to blame. Flat sales were a factor, but nothing the company hadn't seen many times before. The crushing blow was the failure to reach a settlement in the class-action lawsuit. The company had bargained in good faith, but an overzealous and greedy law firm in D.C. had made unreasonable demands.

Survival was at stake, and Marcus assured his people that the company was not going under. Drastic cost cutting would be required. A painful reduction in expenses for the next year would guarantee a profitable future.

To the twelve hundred getting pink slips, Marcus promised all the help the company could provide.

Unemployment benefits would last for a year. Obviously, Hanna would hire them back as soon as possible, but no promises were made. The layoffs might become permanent.

In the cafes and barbershops, in the hallways of the schools and the pews of the churches, in the bleachers at soccer and peewee football games, on the sidewalks around the town square, in the beer joints and pool halls, the town talked of nothing else. Every one of the eleven thousand residents knew someone who'd just lost his or her job at Hanna. The layoffs were the biggest disaster in the quiet history of Reedsburg. Though the town was tucked away in the Alleghenies, word got out.

The reporter for the Baltimore Press who had written three articles about the Howard County class action was still watching. He was monitoring the bankruptcy filing. He was still chatting with the homeowners as their bricks fell off. News of the layoffs prompted him to go to Reedsburg. He went to the cafes and pool halls and soccer games.

The first of his two stories was as long as a short novel. An author bent on deliberate slander could not have been crueler. All of Reeds-burg's misery could have easily been avoided if the class-action lawyer, J. Clay Carter II of D.C., had not been strident in his quest for large fees.

Since Clay did not read the Baltimore Press, and in fact he was dodging most papers and magazines, he might have avoided the news from Reedsburg, at least for a while. But the still-unknown editor(s) of the unauthorized and unwelcome newsletter faxed it over. The latest copy of "The King of Shorts," obviously thrown together in a hurry, ran the Press story.

Clay read it and wanted to sue the newspaper.

However, he would soon forget about the Baltimore Press because a larger nightmare was looming. A week earlier, a reporter from Newsweek had called and, as usual, been stiff-armed by Miss Glick. Every lawyer dreams of national exposure, but only if it's the high-profile case or billion-dollar verdict. Clay suspected this was neither, and he was right. Newsweek was not really interested in Clay Carter, but rather, his nemesis.

It was a puff piece for Helen Warshaw, two pages of glory that any lawyer would kill for. A striking photo had Ms. Warshaw in a courtroom somewhere, standing in front of an empty jury box, looking quite tenacious and brilliant, but also very believable. Clay had never seen her before, and he'd hoped she would somehow resemble a "ruthless bitch," as Saulsberry had called her. She did not. She was very attractive - short, dark hair and sad brown eyes that would hold the attention of any jury. Clay stared at her and wished he had her case rather than his. Hopefully, they would never meet. And if so, never in a courtroom.

Ms. Warshaw was one of three partners in a New York firm that specialized in attorney malpractice, a rare but growing niche. Now she was going after some of the biggest and richest lawyers in the country, and she was not going to settle. "I've never seen a case with as much jury appeal," she said, and Clay wanted to slit his wrists.

She had fifty Dyloft clients, all dying, all suing. The story gave the quick and dirty history of the class-action litigation.

Of the fifty, for some reason the reporter focused on Mr. Ted Worley, of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and ran a photo of the poor guy sitting in his backyard with his wife behind him, their arms crossed, both faces sad and frowning. Mr. Worley, weak and trembling and angry, recounted his first contact with Clay Carter, a phone call from nowhere while he was trying to enjoy an Orioles game, the frightening news about Dyloft, the urinalysis, the visit from the young lawyer, the filing of the lawsuit. Everything. "I didn't want to settle," he said more than once.

For Newsweek Mr. Worley produced all of his paperwork - the medical records, the court filings, the insidious contract with Carter that gave the lawyer the authority to settle for any amount over $50,000. Everything, including copies of the two letters Mr. Worley had written to Mr. Carter in protest of the "sellout." The lawyer did not answer the letters.

According to his doctors, Mr. Worley had less than six months to live. Slowly reading each awful word of the story, Clay felt as if he was responsible for the cancer.

Helen explained that the jury would hear from many of her clients by video, since they would not last until the trial. A rather cruel thing to say, Clay thought, but then everything in the story was wicked.

Mr. Carter declined to comment. For good measure, they threw in the White House photo of Clay and Ridley, and they couldn't resist the tidbit that he had donated $250,000 to the Presidential Review.

"He's gonna need friends like the President," Helen Warshaw said, and Clay could almost feel the bullet between his eyes. He flung the magazine across his office. He wished he'd never been to the White House, never met the President, never written that damned check, never met Ted Worley, never met Max Pace, never thought about going to law school.

He called his pilots and told them to hustle to the airport. "Going where, sir?"

"I don't know. Where do you want to go?"

"Beg your pardon?"

"Biloxi, Mississippi."

"One person or two?"

"Just me." He hadn't seen Ridley in twenty-four hours and had no desire to take her with him. He needed time away from the city and anything that reminded him of it.

But two days on French's yacht did little to help. Clay needed the company of another conspirator, but Patton was too preoccupied with other class actions. They ate and drank too much.

French had two associates in the courtroom in Phoenix and they were sending e-mails by the hour. He continued to discount Maxatil as a potential target, but he was still watching every move. It was his job, he said, since he was the biggest tort lawyer of them all. He had the experience, the money, the reputation. All mass tort, should, sooner or later, land on his desk.

Clay read the e-mails, and he talked to Mulrooney. Jury selection had taken one full day. Dale Mooneyham was now slowly laying out the plaintiff's case against the drug. The government study was powerful evidence. The jury was keenly interested in it. "So far, so good," Oscar said. "Mooneyham is quite the actor, but Roger has better courtroom skills."

While French juggled three calls at once, with a crushing hangover, Clay sunned on the upper deck and tried to forget his problems. Late on the second afternoon, after a couple of vodkas on the deck, French asked, "How much cash you got left?"

"I don't know. I'm afraid to crunch the numbers."

"Take a guess."

"Twenty million, maybe."

"And how much insurance?"

"Ten million. They canceled me, but they're still on the line for Dyloft."

French sucked on a lemon and said, "I'm not sure thirty million is enough for you."

"Doesn't appear to be sufficient, does it?"

"No. You have twenty-one claims now, and the number can only go up. We'll be lucky if we can settle these damned things for three mil each."

"How many do you have?"

"Nineteen, as of yesterday."

"And how much cash do you have?"

"Two hundred million. I'll be all right."

Then why don't you just loan me, say, fifty million?

Clay managed to be amused at the way they threw around the numbers. A steward brought more alcohol, which they needed.

"And the other guys?" Clay asked.

"Wes is fine. Carlos can survive if his number stays below thirty. Didier's last two wives cleaned him out. He's dead. He'll be the first one to go bankrupt, which he's done before."

The first one? And who might be the second one? After a long silence, Clay asked, "What happens if Goffman wins in Flagstaff? I have all these cases."

"You're gonna be one sick puppy, that's for damned sure. Happened to me ten years ago with a bunch of bad baby cases. I hustled around, signed 'em up, sued too fast, then the wheels came off and there was no way to recover anything. My clients were expecting millions because they had these little deformed babies, you know, and so they were emotional as hell and impossible to deal with. Bunch of 'em sued me, but I never paid. The lawyer can't promise a result. Cost me a bunch of dough, though."

"That's not what I want to hear."

"How much have you spent on Maxatil?"

"Eight million just in advertising."

"I'd just sit on them for a while, see what Goffman does. I doubt they'll offer anything. They're a bunch of hardasses. With time, your clients will revolt and you can tell them to get lost." A big drink of vodka. "But think positive. Mooneyham hasn't lost in ages. A big verdict, and the whole world is different. You're sitting on a gold mine, again."

"Goffman told me they were coming straight to D.C. next."

"They could be bluffing, depends on what happens in Flagstaff. If they lose big, then they have to think about settling. A split-decision - liability but small damages - and they might want to try another one. If they choose yours, then you can bring in a trial stud and whip their asses."

"You wouldn't advise me to try it myself?"

"No. You don't have the experience. It takes years in the courtroom before you're ready for the big leagues, Clay. Years and years."

As fiery as he was about big lawsuits, it was obvious to Clay that Patton had no enthusiasm for the scenario he had just laid out. He was not volunteering to be the trial stud in the D.C. case. He was just going through the motions in an effort to comfort his young colleague.

Clay left late the next morning and flew to Pittsburgh, anywhere but D.C. En route, he talked to Oscar, and he read the e-mails and news reports of the trial in Flagstaff. The plaintiff, a sixty-six-year-old woman with breast cancer, had testified and presented her case beautifully. She was very sympathetic, and Mooneyham played her like a fiddle. Go get 'em, ol' boy, Clay kept mumbling to himself.

He rented a car and drove northeast for two hours, into the heart of the Allegheny Mountains. Finding Reedsburg on the map was almost as difficult as finding it on a highway. As he crested a hill on the edge of town, he saw a mammoth plant in the distance.

Welcome to Reedsburg, Pennsylvania,

a large sign said.

Home of the Hanna Portland Cement Company.

Founded in 1946

Two large smokestacks emitted a chalky dust that drifted slowly away with the wind. At least it's still operating, Clay thought.

He followed a sign to downtown and found a parking place on Main Street. Wearing jeans and a baseball cap, with three days' worth of dark stubble, he was not worried about being recognized. He walked into Ethel's Coffee Shop and took a seat on a wobbly stool at the counter. Ethel herself greeted him and took his order. Coffee and a grilled cheese sandwich.

At a table behind him two old-timers were talking football. The Reedsburg High Cougars had lost three straight, and both of them could do a better job calling plays than the head coach. There was a home game that night, according to the schedule on the wall near the cash register.

When Ethel brought the coffee she said, "You just passing through?"

"Yes," Clay said, realizing that she knew every one of Reedsburg's eleven thousand souls.

"Where you from?"

"Pittsburgh."

He couldn't tell if that was good or bad, but she left with no further questions. At another table, two younger men were talking about jobs. It was soon clear that neither was employed. One wore a denim cap with a Hanna Cement logo on the front. As Clay ate his grilled cheese, he listened as they fretted over unemployment benefits, mortgages, credit-card bills, part-time work. One was planning to surrender his Ford pickup to the local dealer who had promised to resell it for him.

Against the wall by the front door was a folding table with a large plastic water bottle on it. A handmade poster urged everyone to contribute to the "Hanna Fund." A collection of coins and bills half-filled the bottle.

"What's that for?" Clay asked Ethel when she refilled his cup.

"Oh, that. It's a drive to collect money for the families laid off out at the plant."

"Which plant?" Clay asked, trying to appear ignorant.

"Hanna Cement, biggest employer in town. Twelve hundred folks got laid off last week. We stick together around here. Got those things all over town - stores, cafes, churches, even the schools. Raised over six thousand so far. Money'll go for light bills and groceries if things get bad. Otherwise, it'll go to the hospital."

"Did business turn bad?" Clay said, chewing. Putting the sandwich in his mouth was easy; swallowing was becoming more difficult.

"No, the plant's always been well run. The Hannas know what they're doing. Got this crazy lawsuit down around Baltimore somewhere. Lawyers got greedy, wanted too much money, forced Hanna into bankruptcy."

"It's a damned shame," said one of the old-timers. Coffee shop conversations were shared by all present. "Didn't have to happen. The Hannas tried to settle the damned thing, made a good-faith effort, but these slimebags in D.C. had 'em at gunpoint. Hannas said, 'Screw you,' and walked away."

In a flash, Clay thought: Not a bad summary of events.

"I worked there forty years, never missed a paycheck. A damned shame."

Because Clay was expected to say something to move along the conversation, he said, "Layoffs are rare, huh?"

"The Hannas don't believe in laying folks off."

"Will they hire them back?"

"They'll try. But the bankruptcy court is in charge now."

Clay nodded and quickly turned back to his sandwich. The two younger men were on their feet, heading for the cash register. Ethel shooed them away. "No charge, fellas. It's on the house."

They nodded politely, and as they left both dropped some coins into the Hanna Fund. A few minutes later, Clay said good-bye to the old-timers, paid his bill, thanked Ethel, and dropped a $100 bill into the water bottle.

After dark, he sat alone on the visitors side and watched the Reedsburg Cougars do battle with the Enid Elk. The home stands were filled almost to capacity. The band was loud, the crowd rowdy and eager for a win. But the football failed to hold his attention. He looked at the roster and wondered how many players listed there were from families hit by the layoffs. He gazed across the field to the rows and rows of Reedsburg fans and wondered who had jobs and who did not.

Before the kickoff, and just after the national anthem, a local minister had prayed for the safety of the players, and for the renewed economic strength of the community. He had ended his prayer with, "Help us through these hard times, O God. Amen."

If Clay Carter had ever felt worse, he could not remember when.

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