Asbestos documentary spurs fight to unseal deposition in Travis County
By: Sarah Rafique
AUSTIN (KXAN) — More than 20 years after a deposition at the center of an asbestos lawsuit was sealed, a Dallas lawyer is still fighting to learn just what those documents contain.
Last year, a Travis County court ruled that it didn’t have jurisdiction to unseal the documents lawyer Christine Biederman wanted to see. Biederman said a source told her the documents in that case, initially filed in 1993, could contradict testimony given in a separate asbestos case.
She’s also learned the documents could be related to a memo that allegedly coaxed plaintiffs on how to testify in asbestos-related cases so they can receive greater monetary compensation.
Biederman initially became interested in getting the documents unsealed after being approached by the director and producer of an upcoming documentary called “Unsettled.” The filmmakers talked to her about her experience covering asbestos litigation as a journalist decades ago.
They’re branding the documentary as a “true-life legal thriller” that centers around the public health risks of asbestos exposure and lawyers who are “manipulating the system.”
The upcoming documentary will include an interview with Washington County Judge John Brieden, who has an interest in asbestos exposure claims through his position with the American Legion. Brieden, a former commander of the veterans’ service organization, said lawyers are wrongfully gaining asbestos settlements for their clients and taking away from the funds available for those who actually have been exposed to the toxin.
“People are filing multiple claims declaring that each one of them is the sole responsibility of their disease and they’re collecting multiple times, saying this person or this company is [solely] responsible, this company is [solely] responsible,” Brieden said. “What they’re doing is depleting the monies and the trusts that were set up to protect folks.”
With the documentary in the works, Biederman is still trying to get the deposition from the longstanding asbestos case unsealed. Her latest efforts led her to the First Court of Appeals in Houston, where she appealed the decision to dismiss her motion to get the documents unsealed.
She’s even garnered the support of Attorney General Ken Paxton, who came out against the trial court’s decision that they didn’t have jurisdiction to unseal the documents, saying the decision “is not consistent with the presumption of openness of court records maintained by Texas law.”
“Biederman filed an appropriate motion to intervene for the purposes of unsealing the … deposition,” according to Paxton’s amicus brief filed in December. “Consequently, the trial court erred in determining it did not have jurisdiction to consider the merits of Biederman’s motion.”
It goes on to say that if the court “correctly assumed jurisdiction over this matter,” Biederman would have had the opportunity to provide evidence showing the deposition should be unsealed.