HEAD OF THE CLASS
Beth Klein is a class action lawyer who strives to satisfy both sides
Published in Colorado Super Lawyers
by Sharon Cutler
Beth Klein will talk about almost anything—from her husband and teenage son, to surfing, to her independent video production company called Humanities. Just don’t ask her about herself. Then the talk ceases.
Thankfully, colleagues, judges, friends and clients—and even the plaintiff of a case in which Klein negotiated a settlement for the defense—aren’t so reticent.
“When you hire Beth Klein, you buy a piece of her life,” says Cindy Andrews. The two are close friends now. That’s extraordinary considering how they met.
In 1986, Andrews and her son were badly burned and permanently disfigured in a propane tank explosion. “We were lucky to survive,” Andrews says.
The Andrews family filed a lawsuit against the propane company, and Klein was hired to represent the defense. “Beth was instrumental in getting people on her side to do the right thing,” Andrews says. “To this day, I credit her because she was compassionate and helped work a settlement in the best interests of everyone. At the end of the day, my son and I were taken care of.”
Years later, the two crossed paths again. “I was on the decoration committee of the Kempe Children’s Foundation fundraiser,” Andrews remembers, “an event for children who have been abused and neglected. We had a big fundraising ball, and I was collecting the bids for the [flower] arrangements on the table.” When Andrews stopped at Klein’s table and reached out to collect the bid envelope, Klein stopped mid-sentence.
“I know you,” she said, and introduced herself.
“She recognized my hand because it had been badly burned,” said Andrews. “She said she’d never forget my hand.”
Andrews recalls Klein’s words: “My heart went out to you and your family. I am really glad that we were able to come to an agreement. It was really important that we did the right thing for you and your son.”
That day Andrews told Klein of her dream to raise $1 million to start a foundation for burned children. She wanted to create a legacy that would live on long after she was, in her words, “taking a dirt nap.”
Klein was quick to respond: “I’m in.”
“And she has been helping me ever since,” Andrews says of Klein, who has served on the Zach Foundation’s board and helped raise money for the organization.
Klein grew up in Colorado Springs. “My father wanted me to be president,” she reminisces. “My mother wanted me to be happy.” Klein, inspired by family friends and neighbors, simply wanted to be a lawyer. She viewed lawyers as “people who empower people,” an ideal she aspired to.
After graduating from the University of Denver’s law school in 1988, Klein accepted a job as an associate lawyer at a boutique firm in Denver that specialized in insurance defense. “I got excellent training to be a trial lawyer at that firm,” she says. She also got the chance to work on the Owens Corning mass tort lawsuits, which at the time involved hundreds of thousands of pending asbestos litigation cases.
When Klein left the boutique firm in 1992 to open Beth Klein, P.C., she took the Owens Corning book of business with her along with a personal invitation to join Owens Corning’s stable of 27 national trial lawyers.
By 1999, approximately 200,000 cases pended and more than 460,000 claims had been filed against Owens Corning. Owens Corning manufactured products that contained asbestos, which was subsequently found to cause lung cancer and asbestosis, a lungscarring disease. The first asbestos case was filed in the 1960s in Beaumont, Texas, and litigation grew dramatically as more people who worked with asbestos-containing products claimed injuries.
To handle such a staggering number, Owens Corning created a unique system to streamline the settlement process; it established regional offices to handle all the administrative work up to the trial itself.
Every Thursday, the regional office would review pending cases and schedule lawyers to try them. “At the end of the day on Friday,” Klein recounts, “your trial schedule would look like a flight schedule.”
Larry Black, another lawyer on the national team, recalls how it all worked. “The regional office would call and say, ‘I’ve got a case going to trial in St. Louis. Can you go up and try it? We expect it will take three weeks.’ Up until this time, we’d never even heard of the guy that was sick. We had no idea who they were. We hadn’t taken their deposition. We hadn’t seen the medical records.”
He continues: “Now that’s completely different than every other piece of litigation, where you work up a defense, and the day that the case starts you take depositions, you get docs together and you try the case. So when you try the case, you know a hell of a lot about it. There were so many cases that this was the efficient way for Owens Corning,” says Black.
“There were very few lawyers that I think could have done this and fewer still that could have done it well. Beth was one of them,” Black says.
At the time, Jack Manning managed the eight-state region for Owens Corning, which included Colorado. “We used her in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana—wherever we needed a trial team,” he says. “Texas was a very, very difficult jurisdiction in which to try cases in those days. The law was against us. The juries were against us. The judges were against us. And the facts were against us. The only thing we had going for us was the quality of our trial lawyers, and Beth was as good as any of them and better than most. The thing that I remember about Beth was she would mount up and try [any case], anywhere.”
Larry Black recounts one such case. “The plaintiff showed up at the trial the first day in a wheelchair. He was on oxygen. He was obviously very, very sick. They introduced the plaintiff to the jury and the judge and said he might not be here every day but he wanted to see this through for his family. On Thursday, the plaintiff’s lawyers came to the courtroom and said he died overnight. They turned to the judge and said, ‘We’d like to tell the jury that he died overnight and that’s why he’s not here. It’s not that he’s not interested in this case.’”
The judge asked Klein and Black if they wanted to declare a mistrial and select another jury, but the team agreed they had a good judge and jury, and they should go ahead and try the case. It went on for another 10 days.
“We just stuck with the facts,” Black says. “And we did something unique in the final argument. Beth came up with this because I’m never this creative. We had to keep the jury’s attention and focus on medical issues, documents, causation issues, exposure issues—all kinds of things.
“We decided to both have microphones and switch off about every two minutes. She would argue and then I would argue. We argued for an hour and a half, maybe two hours.
“The jury was just rapt. Every time they’d start to lose focus, the other person would start to talk. I’ve never seen it done before or since.” Black continues: “The judge afterward said that was the most effective final argument he’s ever heard in his courtroom.” In the end, the jury found that Owens Corning was not responsible for the plaintiff’s death. Manning remembers another Owens Corning case in Central Texas. “She was just getting home-towned unbelievably by the judge and the plaintiff lawyers. I said, ‘Beth, do you need help up there? Do you need a second chair? Do you need someone to come up here and help you try this case?’”
“She said, ‘Nope. I want it to be me against all these people, because I want the jury to see that all these guys are attacking me.’ She was absolutely fearless when it came to things like that.”
Klein started representing plaintiffs in 1999. She doesn’t “work for either side exclusively,” she says, but represents “people with significant legal problems.” Regardless of which side she’s representing, Klein strives to reach a settlement that satisfies everyone.
In 1999, Klein was class counsel in a $15 million settlement for Colorado homeowners. Thousands of Colorado homeowners had purchased defective roofing shingles made of cement and wood that, in many cases, began to crack, swell and discolor decades before the warranty expired, causing homeowners significant financial losses. “We had one of the highest participation rates in that class than in any class in the United States,” Klein says. “At this time, we have paid almost every class member 100 percent of the dollar. We are down to the last 15 people and they will be paid in full, years ahead of schedule.”
Another success came in 2002 when Klein was on the discovery team in a case against Sulzer Medica that ultimately settled for more than $1 billion. Klein represented a group of Colorado individuals who were injured by their Sulzer artificial hip, which was contaminated by a mineral oil-based lubricant during the production process. For her work on the case, Klein was awarded with special recognition by the Hon. Kathleen O’Malley, the U.S. district judge overseeing the national litigation.
Currently, Klein accepts only clients who share her ideals. “They don’t want to make the case about them,” she says of her clients. “They want to make the case about making things better so the same mistake won’t happen again.”
Of course, not everyone can afford her, but sometimes a case just “seems so right,” Klein says, that accommodations can be made. “We have an agreement with one lady,” she says regarding a case that’s otherwise confidential. “One of her skills is that she can make a really great pie. I told her if she made a pie for me every year, that would be fine. I’m looking forward to my Christmas pie.”
Her desire to give back goes beyond her drive to help clients reach a fair settlement. As an instructor at the National Institute for Trial Advocacy, Klein volunteers to help peers better their trial skills, a contribution that “illustrates her commitment to the profession and also her commitment to the concept of public service,” says Mark Caldwell, special programs director for the Institute.
“Beth can hear a story that a client is telling and find the magic in that story,” says Klein’s former partner, Cathy Klein (no relation). She can find “the driving force behind the story, the fundamental human element.”
While in grade school Klein reached the conclusion that lawyers are people who help other people, and despite many opportunities to take a more cynical path, she still believes that is the core of her profession. “Being a lawyer is about righting a wrong, about relating to the world and making it better,” she says.
Personal injury law, Klein says, “doesn’t consume me and it doesn’t keep me up at night. I have complete faith in my clients. I consider it a privilege to practice law—an opportunity to do exactly what I want to do.
“This is not a game,” she says. “We are dealing with people’s lives.”