Evidence on eBay
By Brenda Sapino Jeffreys
Houston plaintiffs lawyer W. Mark Lanier has been on an eBay binge lately, buying industrial manuals, magazine advertisements, ashtrays, floor tiles, roof shingles, a sealed pack of Kent cigarettes from the 1950s, fire-protection cloth and even spray-on artificial snow for making a humdrum Christmas tree more festive.
Lanier isn’t a shopaholic _ all the items he’s won on the online auction Web site either contain asbestos or information about it. His purchases become evidence for his docket of asbestos cases, discovery he freely shares with other plaintiffs lawyers who represent people who allege they were injured through exposure to asbestos.
The hunt on eBay for asbestos goods makes Lanier identify with Perry Mason, Erle Stanley Gardner’s crafty fictional criminal-defense attorney.
“It is, in a sense, taking us back to an earlier time, taking us back to Perry Mason, where the lawyer goes out and investigates,” says Lanier, of the 12- lawyer Lanier Law Firm in Houston.
Lanier says he has won more than 313 auctions on eBay _ many of them asbestos-related _ since he started bidding on items on the auction site in 1999. He says he generally places a high bid and then waits for the e-mail messages notifying him he’s a winning bidder.
“If I know I’m going to be around, I’ll snipe. I wait till the last minute. If I’m not going to be around, I’ll put on an astronomical bid,” he says.
The running tab exceeds $75,000, and about 10 items went for five-figure bids, Lanier says.
Lanier, 42, says he started buying evidentiary items on eBay when working on a Benzene suit. He bought some 1940s medical books and a 1939 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica in his effort to determine what a defendant in the suit allegedly knew about the hazards of Benzene.
For curiosity’s sake, Lanier says he typed in the word “asbestos” on eBay’s search engine and pulled up auctions for some magazine advertisements and some products containing asbestos. His obsession began that day.
He has amassed a collection that he displays on shelves in the conference room at his firm’s offices in a former bank building in northwest Houston. He concedes he’s thinking intimidation when displaying his goodies in the conference room where defense lawyers come for depositions. Framed advertisements for asbestos products line hallways at the office.
Lanier says he has the items tested for asbestos content and then encases them in plastic so he can safely bring them into courtrooms and let jurors handle them. He says he gets requests from all over from other lawyers who want to borrow his items for their trials. “I’m like the lender library,” says Lanier. He adds he is usually willing to let fellow plaintiffs lawyers use items in his collection for trial evidence.
But there’s one valuable report that Lanier keeps to himself. It’s so valuable that he keeps it in a safety-deposit box, and believes he got a real bargain by winning the auction with a $3,500 bid. (He was willing to spend $25,000.) Lanier says he bought a draft copy of a legendary study done in 1958 by researchers Daniel Braun and David Truan for the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association. They allegedly concluded in the report there was no cancer risk associated with exposure to asbestos.
But, Lanier says, they allegedly reached the opposite conclusion in the draft report, which was circulated among the industry for editing in 63 restricted copies.
Lanier says he bought Restricted Copy No. 7 on eBay from a mysterious seller from Quebec. Lanier says the seller lists about 10 asbestos products each month on eBay, and he has rebuffed Lanier’s attempts to contact him directly.
“This is the Holy Grail in the asbestos literature. It’s like finding Matthew’s original gospels or Paul’s letter to the Corinthians,” Lanier says.
He speculates the seller in Quebec either obtains materials out of libraries or he or a relative once worked for the QAMA.
Lanier says he’s used Restricted Copy No. 7 in three trials and another 10 times in discovery. “What I have done is presented it to the jury, shown it to the court . . . it definitely heightens the aura of secrecy,” he says.
“It’s significant,” says Dr. David Egilman, a professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I., and expert witness in asbestos litigation. “It’s a key piece of evidence in the conspiracy case against the asbestos manufacturers.”
Outbidding Other Lawyers
Lanier says a lot of asbestos items don’t come as cheaply as they once did on eBay. He now finds himself bidding not only against other plaintiffs lawyers, but also defense attorneys. He says he once had to pay a couple of thousand dollars for a General Electric Co. parts manual to outbid a lawyer representing GE. Lanier says he later used it in a suit.
And in December 2002, Lanier says he had to pay more than $5,000 to win a maintenance manual that’s probably 30 years old. He plans to use it as evidence in an asbestos suit that goes to trial this month in Brazoria County.
Lanier says he was surprised bidding went so high for that manual. He initially thought a $1,000 bid would win it, but after he was outbid more than once, he substantially upped the ante.
Lanier doesn’t know who was outbidding him _ buyers and sellers use anonymous names on eBay _ but he speculates it could be a defense attorney. He is sure some of the people he bids against are other lawyers, but he can’t identify others in Texas.
“I’d hate to be the defense lawyer bidding against Mark Lanier,” says Robert Thackston, who does asbestos defense.
Thackston, a shareholder in Jenkens & Gilchrist in Dallas, says he doesn’t know of any defense lawyers routinely seeking asbestos items on eBay, although he has heard that some asbestos goods are sold on the online auction site. Thackston is doubtful corporate clients would have the resources to outbid wealthy plaintiffs firms on eBay.
“I don’t think any defendants are in a position to compete with plaintiffs lawyers on eBay,” he says. Egilman, who has bought a few asbestos items on eBay over the past three or four years, including a flag that he believes once hung outside an asbestos plant in Canada, says the online auction site is a source for some of the documents he posts on his Web site. He says it’s making it more difficult for corporate defendants to keep information private.
Fred Baron, a partner in Dallas’ Baron & Budd who has been doing asbestos litigation for three decades, says Lanier has a “great collection” but he is not, like Lanier, using eBay to get trial exhibits.
“Lanier’s turned it into a hobby,” says Baron, former president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.
Lanier has had success with asbestos suits. In 1998, he won a $115 million verdict in an asbestos suit for 21 plaintiffs.
Lanier hasn’t sold a single item on eBay. But he says his purchases are getting out of hand, and he may have to build a storage shed at his house. He studied the classics in college and says he’s bought at least 100 books written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin off of eBay. He bought a bulldozer for his 20-acre estate, a 1953 flatbed truck from a beet farmer in Minnesota and a pristine 1957 Ford T-bird, which he gave away.
He’s also in the midst of redoing an old pipe organ, and bought two organs on eBay to cannibalize for parts.
He buys 15 to 20 items a week. It’s his distraction when he has insomnia.
He says, “Ebay is a dreamer’s supermarket that comes to your house 24/7.”
This article is reprinted with permission from the January 6, 2003 issue of Texas Lawyer. ©Texas Lawyer.
For more information please contact The Lanier Law Firm.