BOB GARFIELD: The internet site eBay is a marketplace and also a discovery place; a kind of downmarket Smithsonian filled with artifacts, ephemera and oddities, and like all museums and all flea markets, it attracts all kinds. The purveyors, of course, don't care who the customers are or why they're bidding, but they might be interested to know that the person who's probably made the most money on eBay isn't a seller but a buyer. Mark Lanier haunts the virtual auction house to forage for items containing asbestos. The reason that's such a good business is that Lanier is one of the country's top trial lawyers, and he's won hundred million dollar lawsuits with the help of items he buys on eBay. Mark, welcome to OTM.
MARK LANIER: It is a pleasure to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: What, what are the items that you've bought?
MARK LANIER: I have bought most anything you can conceive of, because-- the manufacturers of asbestos put it in most everything. I've bought toasters, I've bought hair dryers, I've bought a shirt made out of 100 percent asbestos, I've [LAUGHS] bought-- [LAUGHTER] I've bought Asbestos Man -- looks like a little G.I. Joe to get our kids indoctrinated in [LAUGHS] the way of asbestos. [LAUGHTER] I've bought Kent cigarettes -- in the 1950s for a period of time Kent was nice enough to add asbestos to the filter on the cigarette so you could just breathe it straight in with the tobacco smoke which I'm sure was every bit as health as the asbestos.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, I understand asbestos litigation, but why would you need a product containing asbestos in a trial?
MARK LANIER:Bob, human beings like to not only hear about things; they like to see 'em. They wish they could touch them, and when you bring these asbestos products in, they get to see 'em, but the products are totally encased in plastic, because you cannot touch 'em and the human reaction is to want to touch that product, and, and you have to explain to the jurors --you can't touch it -- it can kill you. That's powerful stuff.
BOB GARFIELD:That, that is powerful stuff. Does-- does a defense attorney ever stand up and object and say-- your honor this is clearly inflammatory or something like that?
MARK LANIER: Well it-- we've had that happen on a few occasions, and, and fortunately the judges have seen the power of it. You know a, an objection like that typically is done in front of the jury, and so my response is judge this company was willing to put it in our homes for us to use; why should they be ashamed for us to see in a courtroom?
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, so they're just exceptional props for making your case.
MARK LANIER: They [LAUGHS] - they are touchy-feel-y props that, that add to it. We've also been a--
BOB GARFIELD: Or don't dare touchy-feely props I would say.
MARK LANIER:Well [LAUGHS] hermetically-sealed is the word that we use with the jury. I'm not sure what it actually means, but Johnny Carson used to use it and so we figured it was okay.
BOB GARFIELD:So when you buy these things off of eBay, I guess some of them you're buying pretty much on spec-- based on so much on a current piece of litigation but one that may pop up in the future?
MARK LANIER: That's true. At this point in time, we have accumulated probably the largest asbestos assortment of products certainly that I know of in the United States, and I watch this very carefully. We call it our asbestos museum. We have it-- not only for use in trials but we use it with our clients themselves, because one of the problems with anyone suffering from an asbestos disease is their need to identify what products that person was exposed to 30 or 40 years ago. And instead of a person having to just recall that from memory, we're able to walk them through the asbestos museum and let them see the full array of products that carried asbestos, and, and folks are much more readily able to remember at that point in time what they were exposed to and what they were not.
BOB GARFIELD:Now you were mentioning the impact that these items have on a jury; tell me the story about the black magic diamond-grinding wheel please.
MARK LANIER: The black magic diamond grinding wheel was made by a company called the Carborundum Company headquartered out of Niagara Falls, New York. The Carborundum Company made thousands of different kinds of grinding wheels, but-- one particular variety was called the Black Magic Diamond Grinding Wheel, and this was a wheel that had asbestos as a, a filler, and asbestos was a, a major part of the wheel itself. I was trying a case where the defendants in the case were challenging whether or not my clients could truly remember that it was the Black Magic Diamond Wheel that they used as opposed to a-- a gray wheel or a white wheel or a wheel with some other name. I had a client on the stand; his first name was Willie, and-- when questioned on the stand, the defense attorney said [MIMICKING/ SHOUTING] Isn't it true, sir-- that you don't know whether or not this was the Black Magic Wheel you used!? And my client Willie, is a black gentleman, working at U.S. Steel, and Willie looked at the lawyer and then looked at the jury and he said sir, I am 63 years old, and when I started working at this plant I was the first black person they ever hired. And I'll take it to my grave that this was the wheel I worked with, because their instructions to me day after day were "Willie, go get another Black Magic Wheel and work some of your black magic over here." And he said when you're a black man and white people are telling you that, you do not forget it. It's powerful.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, I guess that calls to mind the axiom never ask a question in court that you don't already know the answer to.
MARK LANIER: Yeah, that lawyer knows that axiom now.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Mark Lanier. Thank you very much.
MARK LANIER: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark Lanier is a trial lawyer based in Houston, Texas and an active buyer on the web site eBay.