In an abandoned high school auditorium, on soft blue carpets with computers and microphones stationed at regular intervals, modern man has finally produced the ultimate lawsuit -- so intricate, so expensive, so large that the litigants have spent $450,000 just to provide a courtroom big enough to contain it.
Charles Dickens in "Bleak House" thought he had taken the twists of the law to the furthest extreme. His fictional suit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce had lingered so long in the Court of Chancery that all the original parties were dead and the contested money long gone to lawyers' fees.
But not even Dickens, always prone to huge casts of characters, could have imagined anything the size of the asbestos insurance trial under way here. This free-for-all among five manufacturers, 70 insurance companies and more than 100 lawyers might be considered a mere curiosity if it were not for the fact that it is probably the first of many like it.
"This kind of mass litigation, toxic-substance litigation, is the wave of the future," said Superior Court Judge Ira Brown, who conducts the trial from the stage of Nourse Auditorium, once the scene of assemblies at the defunct High School of Commerce just a few blocks off Market Street. With Albert Tolf's painting "The San Francisco Wharf in 1903" on the wall behind him, Brown keeps order with a state-of-the-art public address system, an IBM computer and the acerbic wit of a somewhat jaded law professor.
"Is the court going to . . . " begins one flustered lawyer, here just for the day and uncertain how to negotiate through the morass. "One thing the court is not going to do," intones Brown, 55, a white-haired man with heavy jowls, "is submit itself to interrogation by counsel."
Remodeling the auditorium to house 30 lawyers' tables, with lamps and a signal switch to alert Brown to objections, cost $250,000. The computer system to store the trial's 150,000 exhibits and 250,000 objections cost another $200,000.
Industry officials estimate that shipyard, construction and other workers exposed to lung-damaging and cancer-causing asbestos have filed 24,000 personal injury suits, which cannot be settled until the manufacturers and insurers finish their argument here over who should pay them.
Overwhelmed by damage claims, the former asbestos-manufacturing leader, Manville Corp. of Denver, went to bankruptcy court seeking reorganization three years ago. Here it is asking for $5 billion in punitive damages from 21 insurance companies and $174 million in insurance coverage that insurers have refused to provide. Eventually, a Manville spokesman said, the company expects to be named in 63,000 suits totaling $2 billion.
This trial began in March, but it is unlikely to end before 1987. To Jim Vermeulen, a 59-year-old asbestosis victim who must travel with an oxygen tank, the scene "is just disgusting, a sad commentary on our nation."
Asbestos Victims of America, the California-based organization of which Vermeulen is founder and executive director, estimates the 96 law firms involved in the case will earn $36.8 million in fees before it is over.
Next to each courtroom door is a seating chart to help each law firm find its proper place. Only a few are represented at any one moment, but the list includes Covington & Burling; Low, Ball & Lynch; Lillick, McHose & Charles; Rosenfeld, Meyer & Susman; Munger, Tolles & Rickershauser; Heller, Ehrman, White & McAuliffe; Hancock, Rothbert & Bunshoft; Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; Bledsoe, Cathcart, Boyd, Eliot & Curfman; Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker; Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison; Hufstedler, Miller, Carlson & Beardsley; Bishop, Barry, Howe & Reid; O'Melveny & Myers; Buchalter, Nemer; Kirtland & Packard; Carroll, Burdick & McDonough; Lynberg & Nelson; Cummins & White; Bodkin, McCarthy, Sargent & Smith; Dowd & Dowd; Hall, Henry, Oliver & McReavy; Dinsmore & Shohl; Farbstein & Brown; Gibbons, Lees & Schaefer; Hillsinger & Costanzo; Sheldon, Kulchin & Klein; Meadows, Dorris, Harris & Stryker; Clausen, Harris & Campbell; Gordon & Rees; Bronson, Bronson & McKinnon; Peterson, Ross, Schloerb & Seidel; Wild & Jeffrey; Lewis, D'Amato, Brisbois & Bisgaard; Morris, Polich & Purdy; Sedgewick, Detert, Moran & Arnold; Lynch & Loofbourrow.
The lawyers, many forced to spend week nights away from their families, make no apologies for their involvement. "It is a huge legal problem that needs to be resolved," said Bob Draper of the Los Angeles-based O'Melveny and Myers. California was picked for the trial, attorneys said, because of the large number of claims here and some facets of state law that appealed to some litigants.
Among other innovations, Brown has allowed firms on opposing sides to share the computerized court exhibit system set up by New York-based American Legal Systems. They also pay the San Francisco Unified School District $4,175 a month to rent the auditorium and temporary office space.
Michael Ross, the Sonoma County architect-builder who prepared the courtroom, was given only 45 days to tear out 800 theater seats and put the rundown building into shape. Working day and night, his crews even repainted and repaired the old terra cotta and oak organ screens that dominate the high walls on both sides of the stage.
School administrators say they have no plan to alter the auditorium radically once this trial ends. Attorneys on both sides assume the pollutants and other dangers of modern life will produce further legal dramas that will need a theater this size.
Ross, who heartily agrees, said he just received a call from attorneys involved in the financial collapse of an enormous nuclear power project in Washington state. Thousands of investors are clamoring for justice, Ross said, "and they said our room looks like just the place for the trial."