Big Law:A Novel(5)By: Ron Liebman
So what was this case about?
GRE, for General Renewable Energy, was part of an American conglomerate whose sticky corporate fingers were in many pots. This one was natural gas.
When GRE’s gas plant in the Assam region of India blew, the American and European managers delayed employee evacuation, hoping to put a lid on what was already an uncontrollable situation.
Some of the recovered bodies were burned to a crisp. For those who survived, toxic-chemical inhalation affected lungs and central nervous systems. A cloud of poisoned air descended on the nearby villages where the workers’ families lived. It was a horrible mess.
The company quickly settled claims for environmental damage brought by the Indian government. Its compensation offers to its impoverished Indian workforce and their families were far less generous. There was also some evidence of sabotage. The company brass thought a cabal of workers were the culprits. There was no way they were going to reward them for this with big payouts.
A young Indian lawyer named Dipak Singh, trying to make an independent name for himself as the youngest member of a Brahman family of lawyers and jurists, took on the case for the workers and their families. (And so the “class” of the class-action suit was established. This was the Indian legal version, a cousin to the American legal version.)
Indian justice was swift. It was also slippery.
Jury trials had been abolished in India, so a single judge in the local court of Guwahati, the closest city to the plant, heard the case. The company lost big-time. At the current exchange rate of Indian rupees to U.S. dollars, the judgment was just shy of two and a half billion dollars. That’s right: billion.
GRE refused to pay up and had begun an investigation into just how the case ended as it had. (Possible improprieties hadn’t yet come to light. But there were rumors. Among them the strong ties between the judge and the powerful Singh family.) It shuttered its plant and self-sabotaged its equipment. So company assets in the U.S. and elsewhere had to be seized by the judgment plaintiffs and then sold off to satisfy the Indian court’s monetary award.
Dipak Singh needed to file suit in the U.S. to seize GRE’s corporate assets. For that he needed a U.S. law firm. Dunn & Sullivan got the job. The case looked good to Carl Smith. It could last for years, and the fees earned would be humongous. GRE had retained Peter Moss and Mason Rose to defend them against these seizures.
But there was some real skulduggery going on. As I later learned, Peter had paid Dipak under the table for him to retain Dunn & Sullivan as the plaintiffs’ American counsel. That’s right. Peter Moss had secretly selected his own adversary. Why? Part of the plan. Peter’s scheme to topple Dunn & Sullivan.
So Dipak came to New York and met with Smith. He sat in the very same needlepoint chair that I occupied the next day when Smith tapped me to head the case.
When they were later interrogated about that meeting, they told different stories.
What a shocker. But when you put the two stories together, examine them side by side, you can figure out what really happened.
Smith buzzed his secretary. Dipak Singh’s tea came quickly enough for Smith to endure small talk (Good flight? Been to New York before?) only briefly.
What was Carl expecting in this Indian lawyer? Who knows? Our law firm’s chairman was unquestionably urbane and polished, a cultivated and highly educated man. Yet when it came to preconceived notions about people, the upper crust harbored the same kind of ethnic and racial bias you’d expect to see in some low-life dunce. Carl Smith masked it well, but cultural tolerance was not among his finer points.
So what was he expecting? Some subservient and ingratiating dark-skinned Indian in a cheap suit spouting singsongy, accented colonial English? If he was, that’s not what he got.
Sitting across from him was a young man with an unmistakably regal bearing. And while there were definite traces of a subcontinental accent in his speech, his enunciation was straight out of Oxford University, where he had completed his law studies. He was young, about the same age as a first-year Dunn & Sullivan associate, with powdery beige Brahman skin, gray eyes, ruler-straight, side-parted thick black hair. He was Savile Row–suited, sporting a fashionable five-o’clock-shadowed stubble shave and a beautiful though oversize gold watch on his hairy left wrist. This kid lawyer looked like he’d be perfectly at ease sipping tea in the presence of the queen of England.