It was another habitually late night in the office when I heard my private phone line ring. Although I rarely answer my own calls, even after hours, for some reason I reached for the receiver.
“What’s going on, Hercules?“ It was my longtime friend Mark Eichberg.. “Look, before you say anything, I have a favor to ask. I work with this guy, Juan Castillo. He and his wife are desperate to hire a lawyer. You’ve got to see them, man, and hear them out.”
I hated getting these types of calls. They usually led to some bullshit case in which I had to explain to the family sitting across from me all the reasons why they had no claim or recourse in the judicial system. I understood how personal these situations were to people. But I also knew the process wasn’t anything like the glorified, glamorous version we all see on TV.
Besides, it wasn’t as if I was hard up for work; in just a few years, my small law firm had grown exponentially. I went from representing a hundred people to advocating for several thousand in liability and malpractice cases. These cases were often hard to win, but that’s what made trying them so appealing to me.
And I love to win.
Yeah, business was booming. I didn’t have the time or the interest to take on dead-end cases. Even so, I reluctantly agreed to set up a meeting with the couple Mark was referring to me.
When Juan’s wife, Donna Castillo, first walked into my office, she struck me as demure and fairly typical of the people I met and represented every day. But I could tell there was a painful, underlying strain in her eyes.
“Tell me why you’re here today,” I said.
Donna fought back tears as she told me that on the first or second of November 1989, she took her young daughter for a walk, and as they passed Pine Island Farms, a typical “u-pick” strawberry field, she noticed that a tractor had become stuck in the mud, and it’s sprayer attachment was spraying a clear, odorless liquid as it thrashed uncontrollably about. A gust of wind caused Donna to become wet from the spray, but since the liquid didn’t have any noticeable color, smell, or taste, she assumed it was just water.
She was eight or nine weeks pregnant, and though she wasn’t terribly concerned at the time, she went to the obstetrician the next day, who came to the same conclusion that the farmer must have been watering his crop, as there was no obvious evidence of any chemical use.
Seven months later, Donna gave birth to her son, John. After a healthy pregnancy, she and Juan were horrified to learn that John was born with no eyes. They had no idea what had caused this rare and incurable birth defect, classified as microphthalmia.
My heart was genuinely broken for the Castillo family. I could see the anguish this had caused them. And yet I still wasn’t sure why they were sitting in my office that day.
I wanted to be compassionate and understanding, but I’m a trial lawyer, not a therapist.
That’s when Donna told me about an investigation the London Observer and the BBC were conducting on a cluster of kids born without eyes in Fife, Scotland. They all lived in an agricultural area where farmers frequently used a chemical, similar to one made by DuPont. Pregnant women working with these products were giving birth to children with Johnny’s affliction. An investigative reporter was contacting farmers and families to see if he could connect the dots.
He got in touch with Donna and asked if she had lived near any farms when she was pregnant with John. She had.
He asked if she had ever been sprayed by a foreign substance near one of those farms. She had.
I suddenly understood why the Castillos were in my office that day. They wanted to go after DuPont. Holy shit.
There had never been a jury verdict rendered anywhere in the entire world against a chemical-producing corporate giant like DuPont for developing products that caused birth defects of any type. It was now clear why every other lawyer the Castillos went to before me had turned them away.
They didn’t stand a chance of going the distance against a behemoth like that. They surely didn’t have the money or the stamina it would take to stare down DuPont, let alone win. They needed someone stupid enough to take the case and then finance it, too.
Naive or not, one thing was very clear after hearing Donna’s story: everybody on the street is a potential victim of chemical exposure like Donna endured that day. DuPont was operating with a total disregard for the public. Worse, they didn’t seem to care.
Chemical cases involving birth defects are almost impossible to prove. The reason is basic: is it simply unethical to test chemicals on humans, especially pregnant women. This inherent limitation in testing makes it possible for companies to get away with selling potentially toxic products to the unsuspecting public. Even when faced with examples of severe human damage, companies such as DuPont are willing to sacrifice a thousand Johnny Castillos before they’ll toss in the towel.
As I held Johnny’s photo in my hand, I wondered what I would do if this were my son. I admit, this case represented everything I loved about being a lawyer.
I wasn’t as humble as the Castillos. I’d want vindication by proving this company had fucked up and thought they could get away with it.
This was a real-life David-and-Goliath battle we were about to wage.
It would take a miracle to win.