Nearing the Start of a Landmark Case
I brought in Liz Russo, a friend and appellate attorney whom I had known for several years and who thankfully was available on such short notice.
I promised her $100,000 to assist me at trial, on the condition that we win. She wasn’t nearly as familiar with the case as Marjorie, but she was certainly capable of sitting next to me throughout the trial and doing research and filing various motions.
Liz was a very bright attorney. Nevertheless, this was a difficult case, which would make it hard for her to jump right in and be immediately useful. She did, however, become my security blanket. She was someone I could bounce ideas and theories off of and get intelligent answers from. DuPont had an army—a legion—of lawyers and I had a tribe of two, one of whom was new to the case. That pretty much made me a one-man show.
The timing of Marjorie’s leaving couldn’t have been worse, on a lot of levels. As if that didn’t add enough stress to an already pressured situation, my longtime secretary, Lisa, whom I had also come to heavily rely on, suddenly gave me notice that she, too, was leaving the firm a week before the start of trial. My entire world was suddenly turned upside down.
Of course I did my level best without her, but it was tough. There’s a rhythm that develops between a lawyer and his assistant, especially with someone like Lisa, who had been with me since October 1993. When lawyers are in trial, especially on long cases like this one, they rely on their secretaries to keep the rest of their life together. Now here I was in court with no experienced associate or secretary, I had a divorce pending, and of course I still had “Limogate” to contend with!
The outcome of the Castillo case would have widespread implications, because the fungicide Benlate had also allegedly caused similar deformities in a number of other infants in England, Scotland, Australia, and New Zealand. A verdict would not only benefit these children, a verdict for my client could help ensure that pesticide and other chemical manufacturers would take more precautions to prevent their products from causing further harm to an unsuspecting public.
All eyes would be on the trial, as it was set to air on the newly formed Court TV network (now known as truTV).
The year before, the fledgling network made Johnny Cochran a household name when it broadcast the O. J. Simpson trial. And now Court TV wanted to show this trial in its entirety.
I knew this was a huge opportunity to show the world what DuPont had done to Donna Castillo’s son Johnny. I was also aware that this had the potential to turn me into a household name, because no lawyer anywhere in the world had ever won a verdict in a birth-defect case against a chemical company.
This was more than an underdog squaring off with a giant; this was a modern-day showdown between corporate America and an innocent bystander who could have been any one of us—and everyone watching around the globe knew it. My obligation and duty were to prove this to the jury, as well as show just how badly the Castillos had been wronged by DuPont on that fateful day. No one should have to unknowingly live with these consequences.
I got out of bed at 4:30 a.m. as usual on the morning of April 29, 1996, just as I had every other morning for the prior six months—only this wasn’t a usual morning at all. It was day one of the Castillo trial.
The trial was originally supposed to start the week before, but opposing counsel from the DuPont side asked for a continuance after one of their attorneys tragically lost his 6-year-old child in a drowning accident. I told them to take whatever time they needed. Another week wasn’t going to make a difference. I assured them I wouldn’t file an objection, even though I had already booked and scheduled witnesses from four countries.
“Please pass my condolences on to the family,” I said. And I meant it. After all, we may be foes in the courtroom, but we were all family—men and women first and foremost.
In my next post, I recount the first day of this momentous trial, and DuPont’s aggressive tactic regarding the science.
I’d love to hear from you about how your work and personal life overlap. Do you try to keep a wall between them? Thank you for sharing.