Agent Orange

Paul Reutershan - Forgotten Hero

“I died in Vietnam and didn’t know it.
- Paul Reutershan, 20/20 ABC




On May 7, 1984 - the largest chemical companies in this country, including Dow Chemical, Monsanto Hercules, Diamond Shamrock, Rhodia Inc., and North American Philips, were allowed to settle billions of dollars in claims from Vietnam Veterans across the country for only $180 million dollars - without any admittance of fault.

This was the largest product liability class-action settlement in American History at that time. The parties in this case consisted of more than 250,000 Vietnam Veterans, their wives, children born and unborn, soldiers from Australia and New Zealand, seven corporate defendants and the United States government. For the defendants, the stakes were enormous because the potential liability was massive and threatened the chemical companies with bankruptcy.

The financial exposure of the class action lawsuit exceeded the insurance coverage of the chemical companies and, therefore, threatened the solvency of these companies. If punitive damages were made possible, the risks were essentially uninsurable, and again, give rise to the specter of bankruptcy. The enormous risks of litigation to the defendants meant that the incentive to settle the product liability case was powerful.  

Paul Reutershan spent the last year of his life informing Vietnam Veterans about their rights. All the veterans that Paul had spoken with were told two things: File a medical claim with the Veterans Administration: and simultaneously file a lawsuit against the chemical companies. Paul urged veterans to file medical disability claims with the Veterans Administration due to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam, and to bring individual lawsuits against the chemical companies. He knew the real power of Vietnam Veterans was in their numbers - there were three million Vietnam Veterans. He knew the best strategy available to Vietnam Veterans was to besiege the Veterans Administration and the chemical companies with claims.  

Paul would never have allowed his lawsuit to become a class action case. When veterans began calling to get on the lawsuit, Paul advised them to file their own lawsuits. Veterans who had filed lawsuits were purposefully creating their own lawsuits. These veterans were aware that a class action would diminish their individual capacity to win substantial compensation from the chemical companies. The strength of Vietnam Veterans lied in the potential number of lawsuits against the chemical companies and the multitude of claims for benefits with the Veterans Administration.

The consortium of veteran attorneys and a dozen veteran leaders representing the Vietnam Veterans - The Agent Orange Thieves - selfishly accepted the settlement deal. They presented the settlement as a victory under the pretext of the establishment of programs designed to help Vietnam Veterans with present and future Agent Orange-related problems. What the veteran leadership really established were jobs and financial security for themselves administering bogus veteran programs for the next ten years. Quite simply, Vietnam Veterans who suffered Agent Orange exposure had real needs, direct financial and medical aid, and that were ignored. Vietnam Veterans were sold out.

The settlement scam was accepted for self-serving monetary reasons benefiting The Agent Orange Thieves. The attorneys stood to gain a substantial contingency fee from the settlement. They knew that the chemical companies could face bankruptcy, just as the asbestos industry had done, from cumulative multi-billion dollar claims by veterans across the country. The fear that the defendants were facing bankruptcy permeated the settlement agreement.

Additionally, the attorneys had created a consortium which had shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance the lawsuit and these attorneys were looking to stop the cost of the maintaining such expensive litigation. The settlement guaranteed the attorneys monetary reimbursement for the expenses they had incurred, but more important was the prestige to be gained from being part of a renowned class-action lawsuit. This was far more valuable than continuing the business of fighting a lawsuit that was both time-consuming and financially draining to maintain. If the case was not settled the veteran leaderships’ fears were twofold: Fear of losing prestigious jobs over the next decade representing the Vietnam Veterans interests in the legal and national political landscape;  Fear of the subsequent loss of income if the lawsuit went to court and monies were awarded directly to the veterans and not to the establishment of Agent Orange related programs.

The problem was that the lawsuit did not belong to Vietnam Veteran leadership. The lawsuit belonged to my brother. My family never signed away my brother's rights to his lawsuit after he died. It was my brother in July of 1978 who started one-party litigation against Dow Chemical Company.

Paul sued Dow Chemical for $10 million dollars. Paul was the sole plaintiff and Dow Chemical was the sole defendant in the case originally filed in New York State. Paul's lawsuit was the perfect lawsuit to amend to create a plaintiff class of veterans and a defendant class of subcontractors to Dow Chemical as manufacturers of Agent Orange products.

Paul's lawsuit was perfect to amend for two reasons: The lawsuit was filed and in progress in the court system; and the litigant was dead. The case was able to be transferred to Federal Court only because Paul had died and could not object to the amendment of his original case into a class-action lawsuit. Technically my Paul's case is still alive, the original case number still exists.

Court papers for the Agent Orange litigation show that the class action docket case number is the same as the original case number assigned to Paul's case: MDL NO. 381 79-C-1197, United States District Court, Eastern District of New York.

When Paul died, the New York firm he had hired, Reilly, O'Hagan & Gorman, decided to employ the services of Victor Yannacone, a lawyer specializing in workers compensation and environmental law. Yannacone put together a group of lawyers to take Paul's lawsuit and amend it into a class-action case. Yannacone solicited attorneys from Long Island to form a consortium of attorneys to finance the case. These lawyers sought to consolidate the number of lawsuits in which Vietnam Veterans were claiming exposure to Agent Orange was the cause of their medical problems, which included chloracne, cancer, disabilities, and birth defects to their children.

The attorneys reworked Paul's lawsuit. It was now entitled, `Paul Reutershan on behalf of all Vietnam Veterans versus Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Diamond Shamrock, Thompson Hayward, and Hercules, Inc.' The attorneys for the veterans and the attorneys for Dow Chemical were mutually interested in consolidation of the cases around the country. Paul's lawsuit was perfect to amend because the basis of his case was product liability which covered any and all Vietnam Veteran claims of physical harm due to exposure from Agent Orange.

Paul's lawsuit stated that Agent Orange was manufactured by Dow Chemical, that Dow Chemical knew the product was harmful, and that the product had injured him. This was applicable to the other Vietnam Veterans and the other chemical companies named, so the cases could be enjoined. The attorneys sought to control all the cases because of the fear of one negative ruling in any lawsuit in any part of the country. One ruling against Dow Chemical and the other chemical companies would be open to exposure from any existing lawsuit and all veteran claims against chemical companies were subject to that finding.

The attorneys took Paul's lawsuit and brought his case from the New York Supreme Court to the Long Island Federal District Court. When the case was moved to federal court, the case was given national scope and the ability to consolidate other lawsuits around the country by Vietnam Veterans. Ironically, the attorneys and veteran leadership do not forget about Paul. They invoke his name at every opportunity, spotlighting the hero who went on national television and fought for the truth to come out about Agent Orange. The first thing the attorneys obtain is the acquisition of written authorization from Frank McCarthy to amend the lawsuit into class-action litigation. McCarthy appointed himself president of Vietnam Veterans Agent Orange victims International - the organization Paul founded - after Paul's death on December 14, 1978.

  -- Jane Dziedzic Reutershan & Michele Schachere