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The Appeal(12)
Author: John Grisham

Front page, left column. Not front page of the Business section, but the front page of the whole damned paper!! Right up there with a bad war, a scandal in Congress, dead bodies in Gaza.

The front page. "Krane Chemical Held Liable in Toxic Deaths," read the headline, and Carl's clenched jaw began to slacken. Byline, Hat-tiesburg, Mississippi: "A state court jury awarded a young widow S3 million in actual damages and $38 million in punitive damages in her wrongful-death claims against Krane Chemical." Carl read quickly-he knew the wretched details. The Times got most of them right. Every quote from the lawyers was so predictable. Blah, blah, blah.

But why the front page?

He took it as a cheap shot, and was soon hit with another on page 2 of Business, where an analyst of some variety held forth on Krane's other legal problems, to wit, hundreds of potential lawsuits claiming pretty much the same thing Jeannette Baker had claimed.

According to the expert, a name Carl had never seen, which was unusual, Krane's exposure could be "several billion" in cash, and since Krane, with its "questionable policies regarding liability insurance," was practically "naked," such exposure could be "catastrophic."

Carl was cursing when Stu hurried in with juice and a bagel. "Anything else, sir?" he asked.

"No, now close the door."

Carl rallied briefly in the Arts section. On the front page beneath the fold there was a story about last night's MuAb event, the highlight of which had been a spirited bidding war, and so on. In the bottom right-hand corner was a decent-sized color photo of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Trudeau posing with their newest acquisition. Brianna, ever photogenic, as she damned well should be, emanated glamour. Carl looked rich, thin, and young, he thought, and

Imelda was as baffling in print as she was in person. Was she really a work of art? Or was she just a hodgepodge of bronze and cement thrown together by some confused soul working hard to appear tortured?

The latter, according to a Times art critic, the same pleasant gentleman Carl had chatted with before dinner. When asked by the reporter if Mr. Trudeau's $ 18 million purchase was a prudent investment, the critic answered, "No, but it is certainly a boost for the museum's capital campaign."

He then went on to explain that the market for abstract sculpture had been stagnant for over a decade and wasn't likely to improve, at least in his opinion. He saw little future for Imelda.

The story concluded on page 7 with two paragraphs and a photo of the sculptor, Pablo, smiling at the camera and looking very much alive and, well, sane.

Nevertheless, Carl was pleased, if only for a moment. The story was positive. He appeared unfazed by the verdict, resilient, in command of his universe. The good press was worth something, though he knew its value was somewhere far south of $18 million. He crunched the bagel without tasting it.

Back to the carnage. It was splashed across the front pages of the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and USA Today.

After four newspapers, he was tired of reading the same quotes from the lawyers and the same predictions from the experts. He rolled back from his desk, sipped his coffee, and reminded himself of exactly how much he loathed reporters. But he was still alive.

The battering by the press was brutal, and it would continue, but he, the great Carl Trudeau, was taking their best shots and still on his feet.

This would be the worst day of his professional life, but tomorrow would be better.

It was 7:00 a.m. The market opened at 9:30. Krane's stock closed at $52.50 the day before, up $1.25 because the jury was taking forever and appeared to be hung. The morning's experts were predicting panic selling, but their damage estimates were all over the board.

He took a call from his communications director and explained that he would not talk to any reporters, journalists, analysts, whatever they called themselves and regardless of how many were calling or camped out in the lobby. Just stick to the company line-"We are planning a vigorous appeal and expect to prevail." Do not deviate one word.

At 7:15, Bobby Ratzlaff arrived with Felix Bard, the chief financial officer. Neither had slept more than two hours, and both were amazed that their boss had found the time to go partying. They unpacked their thick files, made the obligatory terse greetings, then huddled around the conference table. They would be there for the next twelve hours. There was much to discuss, but the real reason for the meeting was that Mr. Trudeau wanted some company in his bunker when the market opened and all hell broke loose.

Ratzlaff went first. A truckload of post-trial motions would be filed, nothing would change, and the case would move on to the Mississippi Supreme Court. "The court has a history of being plaintiff-friendly, but that's changing. We have reviewed the rulings in big tort cases over the past two years, and the court usually splits 5 to 4 in favor of the plaintiff, but not always."

"How long before the final appeal is over?" Carl asked.

"Eighteen to twenty-four months."

Ratzlaff moved on. A hundred and forty lawsuits were on file against Krane because of the Bowmore mess, about a third of them being death cases. According to an exhaustive and ongoing study by Ratzlaff, his staff, and their lawyers in New York, Atlanta, and Mississippi, there were probably another three hundred to four hundred cases with "legitimate" potential, meaning that they involved either death, probable death, or moderate to severe illness. There could be thousands of cases in which the claimants suffered minor ailments such as skin rashes, lesions, and nagging coughs, but for the time being, these were classified as frivolous.

Because of the difficulty and cost of proving liability, and linking it with an illness, most of the cases on file had not been pushed aggressively. This, of course, was about to change. "I'm sure the plaintiff's lawyers down there are quite hungover this morning," Ratzlaff said, but Carl did not crack a smile. He never did. He was always reading, never looking at the person with the floor, and missed nothing.

"How many cases do the Paytons have?" he asked.

"Around thirty. We're not sure, because they have not actually filed suit in all of them. There's a lot of waiting here."

"One article said that the Baker case almost bankrupted them."

"True. They hocked everything."

"Bank loans?"

"Yes, that's the rumor."

"Do we know which banks?"

"I'm not sure if we know that."

"Find out. I want the loan numbers, terms, everything."

"Got it."

There were no good options, Ratzlaff said, working from his outline. The dam has cracked, the flood is coming. The lawyers will attack with a vengeance, and defense costs would quadruple to $100 million a year, easily. The nearest case could be ready for trial in eight months, same courtroom, same judge. Another big verdict, and, well, who knows.

Carl glanced at his watch and mumbled something about making a call. He left the table again, paced around the office, then stopped at the windows looking south.

The Trump Building caught his attention. Its address was 40 Wall Street, very near the New York Stock Exchange, where before long the common shares of Krane Chemical would be the talk of the day as investors jumped ship and speculators gawked at the roadkill. How cruel, how ironic, that he, the great Carl Trudeau, a man who had so often watched happily from above as some unfortunate company flamed out, would now be fighting off the vultures. How many times had he engineered the collapse of a stock's price so he could swoop down and buy it for pennies? His legend had been built with such ruthless tactics.

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