The Perils of Document Review

As I’m sure many of you know, one of the hazards of practicing products liability law, particularly in the area of toxic torts, is the dreaded document review. Our fellow asbestos lawyers out there will know exactly of what we speak. When litigating cases with vast stockpiles of old documents, there are typically unusual circumstances.  Determining whether relevant documents exist can be quite an ordeal, and of course, examining them can be even more difficutl. We here at Abnormal Use have reviewed documents in some cases dating back to the 1920’s, including legitimate carbon copies. It is always intriguing to discover what old documents companies still have lingering around their offices, especially in this day and age of document retention policies and predominantly electronic record keeping.

Reviewing these ancient documents is probably one of the least glamorous aspects of practicing products liability law. Often, such document reviews involve trekking to far away and obscure locales and spending days in extremely uncomfortable conditions – not to mention the actual rolling up of sleeves and doing the document review itself.

We recently attended one such glamorous document review at a paper mill in rural North Carolina – one of several paper mills we have visited in the asbestos litigation. The documents to be reviewed were housed in an un-air conditioned, one-room, old, metal warehouse containing approximately 300 ancient and rusted metal filing cabinets. Plaintiffs’ and defense counsel descended upon the warehouse for four days of tedious and laborious review of old documents. Perhaps suspecting the perils we faced, Plaintiffs’ counsel arrived with a large team of reviewers equipped with tailgating tents, coolers of food and drinks, and lounge chairs. Who would have thought?

It was hot. It was muggy. Due to the time limitations, we were forced to begin our review each day at 7:30 am and conclude at 9:00 pm each evening – just when we started seeing double from squinting at the old and faded print and when we felt as if our arms would fall off from pulling and pushing the old rusted metal filing drawers.

One day, a wasp flew up our pants leg as we exited the warehouse for a lunch break, and we were stung numerous times before escaping the insect’s wrath. Further, we also almost ran our car off the road at the entrance to the paper mill, when a bobcat suddenly darted in front of our car. Sadly, the only dining options in town consisted exclusively of establishments with drive-thru windows. Needless to say, four days of fast food meals three times a day leaves one feeling  subpar. The lodging options were also few and far between, and of those, most were mom and pop operations with which we are unfamiliar and somewhat hesitant to stay – but we’ll leave our post on bed bugs for another day.

But not all document reviews are in the country.  Once, we found ourselves at one such event in the heart of a major metropolitan city.  The building had some heightened security measures which made the lawyers’ ingress and egress somewhat of a hassle. The documents were stored in a few hundred bankers’ boxes on the fifth floor. However, I seriously questioned the designation of this area as being “the fifth floor” because there were no windows on this floor and getting there required taking several different elevators, one of which was the size of a train car, and only went down – but not to the ground floor where we exited the building.  Any comings and goings from the room by the lawyers was limited to certain portions of each hour and required an escort for security purposes. This review lasted several weeks and counsel was permitted to bring their copy services along for ease of copying the documents they wanted. Therefore, the document reviewing room was filled with, not only lawyers and their staff reviewing documents, but also a plethora of copy company reps who were endlessly feeding documents through their scanners and copiers that they had staked out at the precious few electrical outlets in the room.

At least that document review was climate controlled and was just a short walk from nearby restaurants.

While document reviews can be dull, they’re not all bad. Namely, they get you out of the office and take you to “exotic destinations” you otherwise probably would never voluntarily visit. So there’s that.

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