Thomas Henderson

The American Lawyer

Asbestos. Agent Orange. Dalkon Shield. DES. Bendectin. Copper-7. Atomic waste. Love Canal. Bhopal.

A tidal wave of mass toxic tort litigation began stirring in the seventies and swept violently through the eighties. It clogged courts, bankrupted billion-dollar companies like Manville Corporation and A.H. Robins Company, Incorporated, sent shudders through corporate America and the insurance industry, enriched legions of lawyers, fueled talk of a "litigation explosion" and juries gone mad with million-dollar verdicts. It spawned debate about whether the tort system can fairly compensate toxic injuries-or any injuries-and inspired proposals to reform the system or even scrap it.

But before these cases began to unsettle the legal system and capture the imaginations of tort reformers, asbestos, the Dalkon Shield, and other products had ravaged the lungs, reproductive organs, and other tissues of thousands of Americans.

That was where the contingent-fee lawyers came in-lawyers like Thomas Henderson of Pittsburgh, a serious, intensely competitive steel-worker’s son known as a tough negotiator and a doggedly determined litigator. He has been a major player in the multibillion-dollar asbestos litigation and had a significant role in the last few frantic months of the mammoth Agent Orange class action, which seven major chemical companies settled for a record $180 million in 1984. And he, as much as anyone, is emblematic of the new breed of plaintiffs lawyers that have put the big toxic tort cases together over the past 15 years. His career illuminates the mix of skills and strategies it has taken to rise to the top of the mass toxic tort field-as well as the rewards these cases offer and the issues of public policy that they raise.