Corporations, big corporations, Fortune 500 corporations. What do the words make you think of? Giant, sinister, inhuman organizations? Ruthless? Cold? Calculating? Their tentacles everywhere? Dominating everything with flawless schemes? Manipulating us? Making us like it?
Maybe, but from what I know of large business corporations, the miracle is that they function at all.
Case in point: I once worked at a law firm retained to defend a Fortune 500 corporation. The corporation – let’s call it “the Company” – had been a technology and manufacturing leader, a pillar of the U.S. military-industrial complex. The plaintiff in the case claimed he had been exposed to toxic chemicals while working at the Company’s Greater Boston facility. He claimed that the Company’s handling of the chemicals and its failure to warn him about the dangers they presented was negligent and led to his contracting a form of cancer.
After the case had been in the office for about a year, the partner in charge of it threw up his hands and assigned it to me. Reviewing the file, I discovered we were seriously behind. Plaintiff’s counsel had made a number of discovery requests to which we had failed to respond. We didn’t know enough about the case. We were in trouble.
I worked like a beaver to catch up. I taught myself the law of toxic torts. I studied medical texts about the causes of the cancer at issue. I served requests for documents and written information. I started working on replies to the Plaintiff’s requests. I interviewed and hired expert witnesses.
I also familiarized myself with the Company’s main facility, an industrial plant which occupied many acres and buildings located north of the city. I talked with the Company’s insurer. I convinced it to have the Company assign a team of employees to support the defense.
Chief among these employees was a man named “Gus,” a very short name for a very long man. Gus was 6’4″ and every inch of him was Texan. He had recently been transferred to Boston from one of the Company’s subsidiary plants ‘way out West. I don’t recall his corporate title; it was “manager” of something or other. The Company assigned Gus to act as my chief liaison.
Gus was a smart, hard-working, reliable guy, but he wasn’t familiar with the Company’s Boston-area facilities. In fact, after years of layoffs, reorganizations, down-sizings, transfers, retirements and natural deaths, there were precious few officers or employees who had any long-term, personal memory of the plant’s workings.
So when the plaintiff’s lawyers quite reasonably asked me to identify all the chemicals used at the plant while the plaintiff was on site, coming up with an answer was extremely difficult. The plaintiff had worked all over the plant for about 20 years prior to his illness. He was potentially exposed to tens of thousands of chemicals used in constantly changing industrial processes at many different sites within the plant, all in an era before computerized record-keeping. It was a nightmare.
But Gus tried to come up with the information. He studied the Company’s organizational chart. He spent weeks contacting everybody and anybody who the chart indicated might know about the processes and chemicals involved. He was able to come up with bits and pieces of information. But the quality of that information rapidly deteriorated as it got older; information from more than ten years previous was very incomplete. No one knew about the record-keeping operations from that long ago. In the end, Gus came up with several boxes of records. Their information was good as far as they went, but it didn’t go very far.
Called into court one morning for a hearing on plaintiff’s motion to compel further responses, I looked a federal district court judge in the eye and told him what Gus had told me: that my client had made every effort it could to find the information sought. But after due and diligent search, what it had produced in the way of information and records was all it had. Everything the Company knew about chemicals used at the plant at the times in question was contained in the boxes we had already produced. The Court took me at my word and denied the motion.
That afternoon, I got a telephone call that moved the case into the Twilight Zone.
It was Gus calling. He said I had to come out to the plant, immediately. He couldn’t explain things over the phone except to say that he thought they’d found some more documents. He wanted me to be there before the search went any further. He wouldn’t elaborate. Fearing for my professional credibility, I jumped in my car and headed to the plant.
Gus’ office was in a two-story building in the plant’s main area. When I walked in, he pointed to a water-cooler in the hall outside his office. He told me he’d been standing there that morning, while I was in court, and he was complaining to a fellow employee about the trouble he’d had coming up with the records we produced.
As he was talking, a third employee, an old duffer who had been transferred out of the manufacturing division 15 years before and usually worked in another building, happened to walk by. He overheard Gus’ complaint and said, “Oh, I know where those records are.”
Gus had spent the rest of the day before he telephoned me trying to confirm what the old man told him. He pulled a Capt. Kangaroo-sized key ring out of his pocket with about two dozen huge keys hanging from it. He jingled them at me. “This is what I came up with. These are the keys to Building X. It’s in the West Campus. Nobody works in the West Campus anymore. I want you to go over there with me.”
We squeezed into Gus’ Volkswagen Golf and drove off the grounds of the main plant. We turned onto the state highway and drove to the other, even more run-down, side of town. We came to a locked iron gate in a great brick wall. Gus got out of the car and unlocked the gate with one of his keys. He hauled the gate open. We drove through, into the abandoned West Campus.
Acres filled with the empty hulks of industrial buildings from a bygone age went past. All the time, we were looking for a building marked “X.” Finally, we found it.
It was bigger than anything we’d imagined. It was four, or maybe six stories tall, with a curved roof like an airplane hanger. We parked the car in front of what looked like a main entrance. Its double-doors were bound with a huge, heavy chain, a massive padlock crimping its links together.
Gus chose a massive key from his ring. Expending a good amount of effort, he turned it in the padlock. The lock sprung open. The chain clanked to the ground. We opened the doors. We entered.
We found ourselves in a huge, square atrium, almost as tall as the building itself. A bare steel staircase wound its way along the walls, disappearing into darkness as it rose. But even the dark of the atrium could not entirely obscure the painting on one wall, at least five stories high: a huge Saturn V rocket, rising into the air on a tail of flame. It was like stumbling upon the forgotten but colossal statue of Ozymandus, King of Kings, the dying boast of a lost civilization.
Gingerly, Gus and I made our way up the staircase, into the dark, marveling at the painting. He switched on a flashlight so we could see where we were climbing. We went up as far as we could, about four flights, until the staircase ended in a landing, and the landing in a pair of huge, red-painted steel doors.
In each door was a small, slit window made of what we used to call “safety glass,” i.e., glass reinforced with internal steel wire to prevent breaking. I wasn’t tall enough to look through either window. Gus was. All he did was shake his head and say, “Wait till you see this.”
Like the outside doors, the red doors were bound together by a heavy chain and padlock. Gus came up with the right key and opened the doors. I gasped.
I had been transported into the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The room was huge, like an airplane hanger, its roof arcing far overheard, its walls receding into an unseen distance. Stretching away from us were rows of industrial shelving, every one of them at least eight feet high, shelf after shelf holding box after box, covered with dust and cobwebs.
Gus and I checked a few of the boxes. Each bore a label showing a plant location and a range of dates. I opened a box. It was stuffed full of receipts, color-coded by type of material purchased. All the boxes were bursting full of similar receipts. The dates went back for as many decades as you could count.
We were dumbfounded. Silent except for the scuffing of our shoes on the dusty floor, Gus and I walked deeper into the hanger. Then, a couple of dozen rows in front of us, we saw a light. Coming closer, we saw two lights, glowing from within a 12-foot square glassed-in enclosure about 12 foot square planted in the middle of all the rows of shelves. Coming even closer, we saw the light came from two lamps, one a floor lamp, the other a desk lamp.
Inside the enclosure, there was a leather couch, a leather chair, a mahogany desk, a filing cabinet and, beside the desk, what looked like two large metal drums standing on their sides. We had now come close enough to see a glass door in the glass wall. Gus opened the door. We stepped inside.
Sitting at the desk was an old woman, dressed in a conservatively-styled navy blue suit with a narrow skirt, her gray hair pulled back in a bun. She looked up at us through her cat’s-eye glasses. “Yes?”
I didn’t know what to say. Gus cleared his throat and blurted out, “Who are you?”
“I am the record-keeper,” she smiled.
No one in management knew this woman existed. Everyone else in her department had been let go or transferred years before. Somehow, she had escaped the Company’s notice. She came to work every day, had her own key, entered the building through a side door, and collected her paycheck every two weeks.
The drums beside her desk were huge circular card files dating back through the time-period during which the plaintiff worked at the plant and beyond. The files provided an index of every chemical – as well as every other physical thing – used at the plant by type or location. Using them, you could work out what the plaintiff had been exposed to, where and when.
No one in the Company, except the record-keeper, knew about the filing system; no one suspected that the records, which numbered in the millions, had been so well maintained or could possibly be so extensive; no one would have ever found out about them had it not been for an off-hand remark and a chance encounter at a water-cooler.
The bottom line: huge corporations aren’t that smart.
I had to apologize to the Court; the Company had to pay the plaintiff’s lawyer’s expenses to go through the records.
The plaintiff died before his case was settled.
The record-keeper qualified for her pension and retired.