Master of Disaster
Jim Tyrrell has argued in court against Agent Orange victims and 9/11 survivors. Why?
Published in 2007 New Jersey Super Lawyers magazine
on March 19, 2007
Updated on November 9, 2016
Jim Tyrrell didn’t set out to become the “master of disaster,” as he has been called. Twenty-four years ago, he was an antitrust and securities law specialist when, at the request of his Manhattan law firm, Townley & Updike, he began pulling temporary special duty, assisting the Monsanto Company defense team in the infamous Agent Orange case. Then, just weeks before trial, the case’s lead defense attorney became ill and withdrew. Monsanto desperately sought a trial extension, but the judge refused and the company was forced to scramble to defend itself against the biggest toxic tort lawsuit in American history.
“The choices were to pick another senior partner from [Townley], go to another firm, or allow myself and another young lawyer by the name of John Sabetta to try the case,” Tyrrell says. They knew the issues, so Monsanto stuck with Tyrrell and Sabetta.
It was a gamble—Tyrrell was only 35—though not an entirely unreasonable one. He had earned some stripes by that point: He graduated at the top of his Foreign Service School class at Georgetown University before turning down a lucrative law school fellowship at New York University to attend Harvard. He passed through a stint with the Navy JAG Corps and a clerkship for 3rd Circuit Judge Leonard I. Garth—where Tyrrell trained another young lawyer, Samuel Alito, to take his place. He turned down a 1973 job offer from the prestigious West Coast law firm Latham & Watkins to sign on with New York’s Sullivan & Cromwell (he actually would join Latham decades later). He was known as a bright, articulate young lawyer, a star clearly on the rise. “I guess it’s fair to say I always had the desire to excel,” he says.
Tyrrell joined Townley in 1982 and expected to continue working in antitrust and securities. Little did he know. Monsanto, a key Townley client, stood accused by thousands of Vietnam War veterans and their families of lacing the military defoliant Agent Orange with dioxin, a highly toxic chemical.
The Agent Orange case settled for $180 million on the eve of trial (the courts later reopened the case to a new set of plaintiffs). Monsanto was pleased enough with his work that it retained Tyrrell to continue handling its toxic tort and product liability litigation, and from there things snowballed. “When you get involved and gain experience in something that is deemed trophy litigation, like Agent Orange was in the 1980s, people want to hire you to do the same thing,” he says.
Now he primarily handles toxic tort and products liability litigation. It’s a specialty that has placed him at the center of some of the biggest corporate cases of the last two decades. In the early 1990s, he represented General Electric—a producer of silicone—in the massive class action lawsuit against it for faulty breast implants. He played a key role in a Texas suit in which alcohol manufacturers were unsuccessfully sued for turning customers into alcoholics. He still defends Monsanto’s chemical company spin-off, Solutia, against suits that involve polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and—to this very day—more Agent Orange claims.
In 1987, the law firm Pitney Hardin hired Tyrrell, and he became its top producing partner. He joined Latham & Watkins in 1997 and opened the firm’s New Jersey office with future Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Last year, he changed jobs again, accepting a partnership at Patton Boggs.
Today, Tyrrell is engaged in perhaps the highest-profile assignment of his career—he serves as lead counsel for 10,000 toxic tort cases related to 9/11. He represents New York City and 150 of its contractors as they fight for immunity from lawsuits filed by Ground Zero workers who claim they developed debilitating respiratory diseases during rescue and cleanup work after the terrorism attacks.
How does he feel arguing against such sympathetic figures in court? Truth be told, Tyrrell says, the job can be pretty hard. He recalls the young girl that plaintiffs had arranged to sit in the front row during the Agent Orange trial. The child suffered from 14 major birth defects, and her family was convinced her father’s exposure to Agent Orange was the cause. In their eyes, Tyrrell was the devil’s advocate. “How would you like to come to court and be on the other side of that girl every day?” he asks. “How would you like, regardless of the merits of the case—to be on the other side of the heroes, the firefighters and policemen who went in on 9/11?”
“You advance your client’s issue,” explains Richard Williamson, Tyrrell’s co-liaison counsel in the 9/11 cases. “And if, as in this case, your client is entitled to immunities under state and common and federal law … that’s your job and you do it. That doesn’t mean that you don’t care about the individuals who are suing. It doesn’t mean that you hope they don’t receive any form of compensation, because we do. But you still have to examine the issues in the case.”
Tyrrell understands that being called “the master of disaster” is not always a compliment. But he says sometimes companies must simply fight, regardless of how bad it looks to the public. If adversaries refuse to settle, his clients have no choice but to go to trial. And settling every case would ultimately be bad practice since companies would bleed themselves dry, and there would always be another litigant waiting in line. Besides, he points out, not everyone who claims injury is actually injured.
“Basically, I go in and try to figure out who is right,” he says. “And in the confidence of attorney-client privilege I’ll tell clients, ‘You guys screwed up here. You need to fix it. Pay compensation to people who have been injured by your product.’”
According to Tyrrell, his role is to help clients live up to high ethical standards. “I’ll go to them and say, ‘You’d better take the lesson from this, because you can’t afford to have this happen again. We’re going to manage this problem as best we can for you, but the lesson is that if you’ve got a drug with issues, take it off the market. If you’ve got a chemical that’s got contaminants, then do something—spend the money and reduce the contaminants.’ That’s good corporate citizenship.”
Those who have worked with or opposed Tyrrell describe him as “honest,” “intense,” “well prepared,” “trustworthy.” Asked how he thinks he should be described, he says “as a guy who never makes himself more important than the work and who tries to work everything as a team.”
Then he adds a colorful note: “If you went to my adversaries in litigations I’ve handled, they would tell you, ‘Jim is not a prick.’”
Gary Ginsberg, a partner at Ginsberg & O’Connor in Mount Laurel, opposed Tyrrell in a case in which a group of professors at Burlington County College claimed they contracted cancer after exposure to Monsanto-produced PCBs at the school. It was an emotional issue, but Ginsberg came away with a positive impression of Tyrrell.
“I felt I could get honest answers from him,” he says. “I would say most of the defenses that he alleges are the right intellectual defenses. He doesn’t muddy up litigation with issues that would be inappropriate.”
And those who have worked with Tyrrell love the guy.
“I would trust Jim completely on any case,” says Thomas DeGroot, associate general counsel for litigation at Monsanto. “When you want somebody who can deal with extremely complex pieces of litigation touching on a variety of aspects of law, he can wrap his mind around that. He is able to demonstrate a breadth of knowledge and intelligence—that is very important.”
Judges have noticed this too. During a June 26, 2006, hearing in which Tyrrell laid out New York City’s complex case for immunity from 9/11 lawsuits, Judge Alvin Hellerstein of New York’s Southern District Court, who presides over the ongoing 9/11 litigation, twice interrupted the proceedings to compliment Tyrrell. At one point, after expressing trepidation that the issues before him had never before been presented to any judge, Hellerstein thanked him for his cogent presentation. “I am grateful to you for a very clear exposition of the city’s position,” Hellerstein said.
Tyrrell thanked the judge, but jokingly brushed the compliment aside. “I’d rather win, Your Honor,” he said with a smile.