Chase Man's unlikely heroics

Since Chase Manhattan Bank discovered several years ago that its Wall Street headquarters were contaminated by asbestos allegedly supplied by a giant British conglomerate called T&N PLC, the megabank's attorneys have decided to join forces with some unusual allies-- anticorporate crusaders and plaintiffs' lawyers--to seek justice.

"We are T&N's worst nightmare," says Chase executive Michael O'Connor. The bank's lawyers have unearthed incriminating evidence in a bitter, ongoing legal fight, and they're sharing these documents with the less well-financed attorneys here and in Britain. In England, one old T&N factory town has been ravaged by an epidemic of mesothelioma, a rare, asbestos-related cancer.

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As late as the 1970s, T&N's American subsidiary still sold a highly carcinogenic spray-on asbestos insulation used in buildings across the country. Internal T&N memoranda uncovered by Chase also show that after U.S. manufacturers had largely abandoned the business, T&N continued to sell its products without warning labels to customers in Third World countries. In addition, as late as 1987, the company's officials were discussing how to suppress a study of health hazards faced by workers in its asbestos mines in Zimbabwe.

Until now, however, T&N has mostly been able to avoid being dragged into American courts, where substantial asbestos-related settlements have been awarded to victims suffering from mesothelioma and other diseases. But the documents uncovered by Chase attorneys may change all that. Furthermore, the bank's willingness to cooperate with the personal-injury attorneys suing T&N seems to stem in part from genuine outrage. "Thousands of people in Britain are dying of mesothelioma-- it's an epidemic," says O'Connor, who takes on tones of a Ralph Nader when discussing T&N. "They [T&N] had more knowledge of asbestos hazards than any American company."

Of course, there are also bottom-line considerations at work. Chase is seeking $85 million to clean up its sixty-story Manhattan skyscraper and $100 million more in punitive damages. The trial is scheduled to begin next year.

T&N attorney Clinton Fisher maintains that Chase and its allies are distorting "a handful of bad-sounding documents" to make their case. "There's more to the story than the documents they've selected," Fisher promises.

Tom Thomas, a Los Angeles lawyer who won a $2.1 million judgment against T&N last August, reads those documents differently. "They've dodged the bullet in the past," he says of T&N. "But they have some real bad skeletons in the closet."