For decades, Herculaneum residents lived — and breathed — in the shadow of the Doe Run lead smelter. Then, in 1994, a mother of three walked into Mark Bronson’s St. Louis law office to tell him her children were being poisoned.
Brenda Browning only learned about the town’s high lead levels when a contractor she hired to remodel her home told her his workers would wear respirators to protect themselves from the lead in the air. Browning knew Bronson and Gerson H. Smoger, who has law offices in Texas and California, had successfully represented Times Beach residents in their claims of dioxin contamination.
“We met with her, investigated and filed the suit shortly thereafter for her and many of her neighbors, friends and relatives,” Bronson says.
Through the efforts of Bronson, Smoger, Steven Bronson, Joseph Yeckel and James R. Dowd, last summer a St. Louis jury ordered the former owners of the Doe Run smelter to pay $358.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages to 16 plaintiffs who suffered from exposure to high levels of lead.
For their victory in the 18-year toxic tort case, Missouri Lawyers Weekly chose as the 2011 Lawyers of the Year: Mark Bronson, a partner at Newman, Bronson & Wallis; Steven Bronson, who works for Smoger & Associates from San Diego and in an of counsel capacity at his father’s law firm; James R. Dowd, the former Missouri appellate judge turned solo practitioner; and Joseph Yeckel, another solo practitioner. Since Smoger is not a Missouri lawyer, he is ineligible for the award.
Holly Shanks, the mother of two of the 16 plaintiffs, was in the courtroom every day of the trial. After it ended, she praised the attorneys who spent years working on the case.
“They have a passion for what they do. They have a passion for kids and the environment, and it’s due to their dedication that justice was done,” she said.
Steven Bronson said Shanks’ presence kept the attorneys motivated.
“Staying up all night, we’d see her in the morning; she’d be excited and encouraged and give us the energy we needed,” he said.
Although the lawyers won for their clients the highest jury verdict ever in the city of St. Louis, their work is far from over. In December, St. Louis Circuit Judge Dennis Schaumann denied the post-trial motions of defendants Fluor Corp., A.T. Massey Coal Co. and Doe Run Investment Holding Corp., which were all part of the former Doe Run Co. Partnership. The defendants filed an appeal to the Eastern District appellate court just a few weeks later.
And while the lawyers fight out the issues on appeal, they also need to look forward to their next smelter case, scheduled to begin in July.
The case, known as Alexander v. Fluor, originally filed as three separate lawsuits, was particularly challenging because the plaintiffs’ lawyers essentially had to prove 16 separate personal injury cases all rolled up into one.
“I don’t believe many lawyers in this day and age try 16 cases in a year, I mean really try them to a jury, significant personal injury cases. So presenting 16 cases at one time was certainly a challenge not only in preparation but in the presentation and coordination,” Mark Bronson says.
A trial can be a 24/7 job. This trial ran for three months, beginning April 25 and ending July 29 in Schaumann’s courtroom. The team rented three two-bedroom, two-bathroom lofts at the Merchandise Mart Apartments in downtown St. Louis, where Smoger, Steven Bronson and the California-based paralegals stayed during trial. Often the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses would stay with the lawyers while they were in town.
Steven Bronson described many late nights in those apartments.
“When we had a good cross-examination together at about two in the morning and we wanted to go to sleep, Gerson had the ability to push us until five in the morning, even though we’d get two hours of sleep or less, to get a great cross-examination together,” he says.
The younger Bronson’s own role combined a lawyer’s knowledge of the case with the ability to organize the information into computerized exhibits.
“Because he was involved in the preparation of the witnesses,” Mark Bronson says of his son, “he knew what was happening and what we were trying to present to the jury. During a trial, nothing ever goes as planned, and when there were changes or new information came out — and there was quite a bit of new information in spite of all the discovery that had been done that came out during the trial — he was able to coordinate all that and react to it in real time.”
Along with Smoger and the two Bronsons, Dowd was in court every day. His role was to weigh in on legal issues, including drafting jury instructions and other legal memorandums to argue before the trial judge.
As Dowd puts it: “Gerson had me in the middle of pretty much every legal dispute there was and picked my brain clean.”
Schaumann and the lawyers on both sides kept the jury’s schedule as consistent as possible and used time in the morning before trial, during lunch breaks or at the end of the day for the lawyers to argue legal issues before the judge.
Mark Bronson calls Dowd’s work “invaluable.”
“Jim, of course, being a judge, an appeals court judge, provided invaluable insight into legal issues and the ability to present those legal issues in a meaningful way to the court not only in legal pleadings but also in argument before the court,” he says.
Yeckel, Dowd’s former law clerk, was tasked with preparing motions as well as memorandums supporting those motions and others opposing defense motions.
Among the documents Yeckel drafted were motions in limine, or motions to limit or exclude certain evidence.
“If you can show the judge why certain evidence is relevant or not relevant early on, it has a way of shaping that judge’s view of the case,” he says.
Yeckel did most of his work in his law office, away from the distractions of the courtroom.
Mark Bronson and Smoger were the legal team’s co-leaders.
Dowd compliments their work on this trial and the years leading up to it.
“It’s been their life’s work, and no one could have done it better than these two guys,” he says. “I’m very proud to be part of this team.”