Former Paralegal Fighting To Use Secret Tobacco Documents
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) _ Merrell Williams considers himself a moral voice fighting a tobacco industry conspiracy. A tobacco company and its lawyers look on him as a potential scourge of the American legal system.
While employed as a paralegal at Kentucky’s largest law firm, Wyatt Tarrant & Combs, Williams secretly copied a box full of documents from one of the firm’s clients, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.
What Williams saw in those papers left him ″shocked at the fraud and hoax being perpetrated on the government and the American people,″ according to his attorney, J. Fox DeMoisey.
Williams, who smoked cigarettes for years and now suffers from heart disease, told DeMoisey the documents showed a decades-long conspiracy by tobacco companies and their law firms to conceal the dangers of smoking.
He wants to sue Brown & Williamson over what he claims is his smoking- related health problems.
But Williams hasn’t filed suit because the law firm and the tobacco company won an injunction barring him from disclosing contents of the box.
They are also asking Williams to return any information he gained in his four years with the law firm.
Jefferson Circuit Judge Tom Wine is deciding whether the information is subject to attorney-client privilege or whether Williams can use it to defend himself against a suit the law firm has filed against him. No hearings have been scheduled.
Both the law firm and tobacco company have rejected Williams’ claims to the documents.
″Williams is asking for approval of the theft of attorney-client, confidential information, and shatter for all time the sacrosanct attorney- client and work-product privileges,″ Wyatt Tarrant & Combs attorney Jack Ballantine said in papers filed in court.
Williams, 52, claimed his heart disease resulted from smoking Brown & Williamson products and said he had suffered mental stress from dealing with the documents. Brown & Williamson manufactures cigarettes under the brands Kool, Raleigh, Belair and Viceroy.
The injunction Wine issued Oct. 5 prohibits anyone connected with the case from discussing the box’s contents. DeMoisey said Williams could not discuss the case at all.
DeMoisey said in court documents that it would be difficult for Williams to return all of the information.
″For approximately four years, Mr. Williams’ brain cells absorbed, ordered, collated and retained the information,″ DeMoisey wrote. ″To return this information, Williams would have to cut off his head and return his head in a basket.″
DeMoisey has asked that the restraining order be dissolved, saying he can’t defend Williams without knowing what is in the documents.
″It’s like playing poker and betting without ever looking at your cards,″ DeMoisey said last week.
Wine hasn’t ruled on that request.
DeMoisey said the case could be subject to a crime-fraud exemption to the attorney-client privilege doctrine. In those cases, clients who consult attorneys to aid the commission of fraud are not protected.
If there is no fraud, DeMoisey said, Brown & Williamson and its law firm should have no problem allowing the court and DeMoisey access to the papers.
Brown & Williamson spokesman Tom Fitzgerald said it is ″improper for us to comment at all regarding this case.″ Officials of the law firm did not return telephone calls.