The year was 1974. Nixon was forced to resign over the Watergate scandal, casualties were piling up in the Vietnam War and runaway inflation was worsening the global recession.
But in one pocket of California, Steven Kazan had his eye on another life-shifting issue: the widespread use of asbestos and the massive cover-up of its carcinogenic effects.
Asbestos was used in construction as an insulator, and Kazan first got wind of the damage it caused via a medical malpractice case against an in-house doctor at a Johns Manville manufacturing plant. He was an associate at the time at a med-mal boutique in San Francisco.
“The firm looked at this case from the perspective of medical malpractice: failure to diagnose,” says Kazan. But he had an instinct that there was more to the story. When he left the firm to hang his own shingle, he started a four-decade effort to secure compensation for factory workers and other individuals who had been exposed to this dangerous mineral.
Part of the work included deep dives into the medical science behind mesothelioma, the aggressive cancer caused by asbestos exposure. Kazan has spoken as a keynote at mesothelioma medical conferences and has written abstracts that are published in peer-reviewed medical literature on the topic. He has also given testimony before the Senate and House Judiciary Committees.
In 1994, he co-founded the Kazan McClain Partners’ Foundation, which has provided grants of over $7M for mesothelioma research, among other community and civic outreach efforts. Kazan and his clients, who are often more interested in eradicating this disease than they are at collecting damages, recently put $1M into a new hospital at Stanford University.
The pioneering attorney has been spurred on in this lifelong effort by his passionate drive to help his clients, who he says are “the most honest, hardworking people. They come from a culture where if you get a good day's pay, the boss deserves a hard day's work.”
Kazan, who was inducted into the Lawdragon Hall of Fame in 2021, no doubt comes from the same stock. “I may be the only lawyer you know that doesn't own a tuxedo,” he says. “Those are not my roots.”
Lawdragon: You were on the front lines of early asbestos litigation in the '70s. What first drew you to that work?
Steven Kazan: After working at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, I joined a medical malpractice boutique in San Francisco. They had a large referral practice, and one of their connections was a workers' comp lawyer in the East Bay, representing industrial workers. He sent over a case involving a worker who was eventually diagnosed with asbestosis by the in-house doctor at a large Johns Manville plant in Pittsburg, Calif.
For the time, it was a nice verdict, based on a long delay constituting, in effect, a “failure to diagnose.” I was the youngest, newest associate in the firm. This was long ago in a galaxy far away, and so every day at 5:00, the junior partner would invite all the associates into his office and open the bar.
We were sitting around one time, and I said, "Gee, with this case, this doctor's been there for years. He probably screwed up lots more cases. Why don't we go try to find them?" My boss said, "Eh, we're busy enough. Why bother?" Shortly thereafter, I left. My boss and I had a slight disagreement on how much I was worth.
LD: Good reason to leave.
While industries certainly knew that they were killing people, they weren't telling anybody.
SK: It was a good firm, well-regarded, and I made some important connections there. But the partners were a father and son, and it was clear he wasn't going to adopt me. Baby number two had just arrived. I decided that since I wasn't making a living, I might as well be my own boss. I moved to Oakland and opened an office to focus on plaintiffs’ medical and legal malpractice.
I kept in touch with the workers’ comp lawyer, and he started sending me cases directly. I said, "Hey, what about all these asbestos things?" He said, "Funny you should ask. I'm seeing a bunch of those. Do you want to work on them?"
LD: When did you realize that this was going to become all-consuming?
SK: Well, we filed a bunch of asbestos cases in the first year but there were no fees coming in because it was a new area. I continued to work mostly on medical malpractice for several years; I did a trial that first summer that was essentially my year's income. Then it started to become clear that the asbestos cases were very good cases, and for really nice people. These were all just hardworking blue-collar guys. The guys who did their jobs were the ones who got sick. They were great clients, and they were interesting cases.
My specialty with the medical malpractice cases was dealing with complex issues of medical and scientific proof. So, the asbestos work fit right in.
LD: Were all these cases related to the Johns Manville plants?
SK: Mostly. Then some work came out of the Fibreboard Company plant in Oakland. As I focused more on representing asbestos plant workers, I got more and more cases. There weren't very many lawyers doing these in California at the time.
LD: And then how did you start representing asbestos victims in bankruptcy reorganizations?
SK: The first bankruptcies were the summer of 1982. I started the firm in '74, but within a couple of years, there was more national cooperation with the workers’ cases. When the first bankruptcies were filed, that changed things dramatically. Some people got out of the business thinking it was all over. By that point, I had a lot of pending cases. In the '70s, I had gotten some very strange publicity around the early plant worker cases. Then, in 1981, I tried the first plant worker case in California.
LD: Strange in a good way or a bad way?
SK: Well, there was a guy I knew, a left-wing journalist, who started a labor magazine and wrote a lot about our cases against the Manville Pittsburg plant. The San Francisco Chronicle picked it up at one point as the lead story and my name was on the front page.
LD: That would cause some momentum.
SK: Then, the guys at the plant workers’ local union in Lompoc, Calif., where Manville had a big diatomaceous earth mine that also made asbestos products, saw the article. The union head wrote a letter, which basically said, "Hello, I'm the chair of the local union health and safety committee. We've had a lot of people die. In the last few years, we've collected 100 death certificates of our members. We think something funny is going on. Could you please come down here and represent us all?"
I went down and held a meeting. I talked about what had happened, what Manville had done and so on. They just lined up. For a couple days, they just kept coming. We filed four complaints for 80 or 90 people from that plant.
I went down to Santa Barbara and had a local TV reporter meet me at the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board courthouse to watch me file dozens of injury and death claims. It made the local news. And the cases kept coming in.
A lot of these guys had exposure in the 1930s and early 1940s and during World War II. By the mid-'70s, 30 years after the war ended, that was peak time, given the latency incubation period for asbestos. Then, as time went on, we started seeing more cases from the post-war construction boom in this country. We also saw cases of guys who'd been in the Navy, and other military exposures.
Take care of your clients. They don't come to you for sympathy. They come to you because they know they're dying, and they want to make sure their families are taken care of.
LD: Did you have any mentors during all this?
SK: Jack Moore, the lawyer for Johns Manville, was a mentor to me. We had a good relationship. He was much older, although younger than I am now.
LD: What did you learn from him?
SK: Don't brag about your fees. He said, “I know you like your clients, but your dad was a retail florist. You are also in the retail business, only you're selling your cases.” Any good retailer knows you don't fall in love with the merchandise. Everything is for sale. You don't take it home. Basically, take care of your clients. Put them first. They come to you to get money, not for sympathy. So don't fall in love because that gets in the way of doing the job.
LD: Good advice. Still, I imagine cases like these must be personally impactful.
SK: They always are, yes. The key is remembering the difference between empathy and sympathy. If you don't care about them, you're not going to do a good job. But they don't come to you for sympathy. They have family and friends and clergy for that. They come to you because they know they're dying, and they want to make sure their families are taken care of. Empathizing with their situation and caring about them is very useful, but like a doctor, if you get too emotionally involved, you're not going to be objective enough to do your job properly.
It's a hard line to follow. One of the things we found over the years was that our staff employees tended to be younger. Many have never yet had a death in the family – even their grandparents were alive. They worked very closely with clients and got really connected and involved, and the frequent deaths hit them very hard. Early on, we found a group of counselors and advisors that helped people through adherence to the Kübler-Ross death and dying grief process. We would bring in consultants to work with our staff and for many years had a psychologist on call.
LD: That makes so much sense.
With so many of your cases having to do with mesothelioma specifically, how did you get into understanding the science of that disease, and how has that progressed over the years?
SK: Well, into the 1950s and until 1960, there was a real question of whether that disease existed. The only cause, really, is asbestos. While industries certainly knew that they were killing people, they weren't telling anybody. It became more and more obvious until it was established in the mid-'60s without any question.
I was always kind of a science geek. I understood the language and made it a point to form relationships with doctors who specialized in this. Some have been witnesses for me. There were even doctors I sued in malpractice cases who ended up testifying for me in cases. I followed the literature, subscribed to the journals, and started going to medical conferences on cancer and chest diseases.
I was always the ugly duckling at these conferences, or maybe the swan. I was literally the only lawyer there, and I became a fixture. There's a group called the International Mesothelioma Interest Group, and I started providing financial support for their meetings.
A while ago, I started submitting abstracts largely focusing on issues of interest to doctors at the intersection of law and medicine. As far as I know, I'm the only American lawyer, and one of a handful in the world, who've ever had abstracts submitted, and been asked to present at these meetings.
We discussed the legal implications of what they do, and other things doctors should know about. It's a way of making connections based on common interests and taking care of their patients. Also, my sister has basically been the coordinator for the international movement to ban asbestos.
LD: How'd she get involved? I didn't realize it was a family affair.
SK: As I told the U.S. Senate once, it's the family business. My sister [Laurie Kazan-Allen] moved to London after college. When we started suing British companies, there are formal ways you can serve process through the Hague Convention, which is very cumbersome. There was one major British defendant called Turner & Newall that we had sued a few times. I got to know their lawyers, and they agreed that they'd accept personal service from us. They were in Manchester, which is a reasonable train ride from London. So, I'd send papers to my sister. She would call up to the secretary of the company and say, "I got some more papers." He'd say, "Well, come for tea on Wednesday."
Then, we'd get hired by clients whose cases required we do corporate research, which my sister, who has a business degree, helped with. I started asking her to help us find witnesses for our British clients. She would go to small towns in Ireland or Scotland and place an ad in the local newspaper and go see them. The newspaper would write an article about “a British investigator looking for the mates of John Smith who worked at the ‘X’ factory.” And people would respond. She started meeting some of the early victims’ groups and organizations there. The whole thing mushroomed into an international movement. There’s a lot of this disease also in Australia, South Africa and throughout Asia.
They all got together and organized the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, of which she's the executive director. She's written six or eight books, monographs on different aspects of this, in Asia and India and so on, that have been well-regarded.
I was always kind of a science geek. I understood the language and made it a point to form relationships with doctors who specialized in this.
LD: Tell us about your testimony before the Senate and House Judiciary Committees.
SK: There was one when the global tobacco settlement was reached with all the states, that the people who negotiated the deal deliberately set out to eliminate any claims that asbestos companies could have to get contribution or indemnity from the tobacco industry for diseases, mostly lung cancer, where asbestos and smoking were involved, which did not please a lot of the asbestos companies or the bankruptcy trusts. I pushed the Manville trust to sue the tobacco companies. They brought me in as co-counsel with their regular outside counsel who later moved their practice to the Orrick firm. I testified on whether the trust should get some piece of the settlement, or at least protect their rights.
Then there were legislative proposals around 2000 to deal with the flood of screening no-impairment, mild X-ray changed cases. Something like 100,000 of those cases were filed. Some asbestos companies at least acknowledged they'd hurt a lot of people and wanted to help do what was right. But they were getting killed by all these, shall we say, more modest cases. There was a group of lawyers like me who focused on the cancer cases, who also had a common interest. So, there was this very strange coalition between us, the Chamber of Commerce and the American Insurance Association working on lobbying all of this. They had the money and connections. We had the public interest aspect.
I was the group spokesman for the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, including when that Committee called for an Asbestos Summit Conference.
At one of those hearings, a senator said, "Well, it looks like maybe we should just think about banning asbestos. What do you all think?" The corporate witnesses said, "Well, we don't know." The Manville trust guy said, "Well, we haven't taken a position on that. I'm not authorized to say anything." Even people from organized labor said the same thing: "That would have to go to the national board. I'm not authorized." They looked at me and said, "What about you?" I said, "My position is unequivocal. I have a sister who is younger, smarter and prettier than me. She is the director of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat. So, our family's position is clear. You should ban it."
LD: They should have listened. What do you find most rewarding about this work?
SK: It's the people. I'm more removed these days – I don't try cases anymore; I focus on the bankruptcies. I’m on many of the re-organization committees and am an advisor to most of the trusts once they're established. We put $50B into these trusts, so I'm going to keep an eye on it to make sure nobody screws it up. So, I'm a level removed from the day-to-day with the clients, but I've always loved them.
Having the clients who want us to help provide for their families has always been central. I've called clients and said, "We're in trial, and we've just now settled with the last defendant, so I don't have to ask you to testify from your hospital bed," and the clients have said to me, literally, "Thank you so much. Does that mean I can go now?" Because they've held on just to see it through. Back then, they knew that the damages for pain and suffering would disappear if they weren't alive at the end of the trial. We've since changed that law.
SK: We've made some big changes in California law with that and limiting the depositions that used to take days or weeks. They're now basically seven hours, just like in federal court.
We just want to get justice for people. Religious people would say that we try to do the Lord's work. The biblical injunction to pursue justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God – not a bad way to try and live. They can't get justice on their own, and no one's given it to them.
I've had clients who say, "Look, I don't need the money, but I want these SOBs to pay for what they've done. How can I help protect other people?" Even clients who do need the money often say, "You guys did so much better than I ever expected. I'd like to help the next guy." So, we help them find ways to do that, and we channel a lot of money into medical research, to save people from dying of this disease, as well as other community efforts, like food banks.
We want to help people. The client always comes first. We charge lower fees than probably anybody else on asbestos bankruptcy work. Most law firms charge their regular percentage. I don't want to say that's wrong. I do want to say that the way we do it, we think, is the right way. And we spare no effort in preparing and trying our cases; we generally get really good results in settlement and at trial – and in over 45 years have never taken an asbestos case where the client didn’t recover at least some compensation. That’s it.