SimmonsCooper gets in W.R. Grace action

Steve Korris Oct. 17, 2008, 2:28am


John Simmons and Jeff Cooper knew little about W.R. Grace and Company when they started filing asbestos suits that helped push Grace into bankruptcy in 2001, according to statements SimmonsCooper attorney Robert Phillips made at a hearing in 2006.

"My firm was founded in 1999, middle of 1999, not even two years before Grace filed bankruptcy, by a pair of lawyers less than five years out of law school," Phillips told bankruptcy judge Judith Fitzgerald of Pittsburgh.

In less than a decade, the East Alton duo expanded its asbestos litigation reach to include claims from all over the country.

"We hadn't done hardly any discovery against Grace prior to Grace filing bankruptcy," Phillips said as he argued a motion to compel discovery against Grace and other third parties. Grace, a global specialty chemicals and materials company, turned solvent this year by forcing an estimation trial on the value of asbestos claims.

As the sides wrangled, Phillips protested that Grace asked for too much information on claimant questionnaires.

He said that if Grace could require claimants to fill out questionnaires that ask about exposure and settlements with other parties, it was only fair to allow claimants to prove their cases through discovery.

He said he would agree to a questionnaire asking for name, injury and medical condition, but added that "the debtor's questionnaire goes far beyond that."

"The debtor's questionnaire asks about exposure to their products," Phillips said.

"It asks about exposure to other companies' products.

"It asks about settlements with other parties.

"It asks about practically everything that touches upon in any conceivable way the merits of the claim the person is bringing.

"The claimant maybe had to know something but the debtor is asking far more than that and is going to use the information for far more than that."

Representing Grace, attorney David Bernick of Kirkland & Ellis said lawyers had taken massive discovery against Grace.

"The number of lawyers who are involved in the asbestos litigation process is actually relatively limited," Bernick said. "They've got it down to a machinery."

Phillips answered that certain firms might have documents on certain job sites that are superior to what Grace itself knows.

"To say that we have this vast information library at our disposal for Grace, for all the claims we have across Illinois, Missouri, and now, you know, no one's talking about the tens and hundreds of thousands of claims filed since petition date," he said.

Fitzgerald denied Phillips's motion to compel discovery. In April of this year the sides abruptly settled after Fitzgerald demanded claimants provide evidence of their disease.

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