Rage Against the Legal Machine

I knock on the door, let myself in.
Melody Baker can't hobble from the living-room couch to the front door unless she takes the morphine prescribed by her doctor. And today, she is trying to forgo the morphine.

She wants to explain to me, in the most clear-headed way possible, how her serious illness was caused by exposure to toxic chemicals when she was a child growing up in Maryvale. For years she has counted on the future settlements of two of Arizona's largest class-action "toxic tort" lawsuits to bail her out of her medical expenses. But, just last week, the Phoenix lawyers representing her in those unsettled cases said in open court they wanted to sever most of their legal ties with her.

Through the years, I've witnessed this 43-year-old environmental activist's nearly incomprehensible, malapropist diatribes against environmental officials and industry representatives at numerous public meetings. Her angry sentences seemed to be 3,000 words long and were nearly impossible to follow.

Because of that history, I don't particularly look forward to this interview in Baker's home.

Melody Baker waits for me on the same old beige couch she had the last time I visited her Maryvale tract home 10 years ago. I can tell right away she is seriously ill. She's lost weight. She's jaundiced, although charcoal-hued flesh puffs from beneath her eyes. She's pulled her black hair--which once hung down to her waist--into a thin, short ponytail.

Baker herself is not the obsessive, raging activist I remember. She's a very sick woman who fears she may not live to see her grandchildren. She worries out loud that she's too sick to be a good mother, worries that she's a financial and emotional burden on her family.

Beyond the beating her health has taken and her catfights with her lawyers, she's facing overwhelming financial problems. She lost her accounting job last October, probably because her medical claims and illness-related absences inconvenienced her employer. Her husband Tom, who installs dog doors and earns about $25,000 a year, can't afford to pay the $500 monthly Cobra payments to keep up Baker's health insurance.

Tom Baker's salary is too high to qualify Melody Baker for AHCCCS, the state health-care program for poor people. With no money, Baker fears she and Tom may have to sell their only family asset--the house--in order to pay for her medicine, which costs about $1,000 monthly.

When I first met the Bakers 10 years ago, they were healthy and financially secure. Tom had a good sales job with a company that has since gone bankrupt. Melody was a young environmental activist fighting for victims of pollution.

Then in 1988, Baker herself became a victim. She was diagnosed with thrombocytosis, a blood disorder originating in the bone marrow. Her health slowly deteriorated. Today, she's an invalid. An inoperable blood clot is lodged in a vessel supplying her liver. She is too weak to sustain an operation; the clot may be permanent. Her liver is so swollen and tender she cannot even walk to the kitchen without feeling severe pain, which explains the need for prescribed morphine and the wheelchair. A second clot has blocked a vein in her leg.

Doctors say a new clot could form at any time in her bloodstream and cause a stroke.

And they say Baker could develop fatal leukemia any day.
She's sure her illness was caused by her exposure to trichloroethylene, or TCE, a solvent dumped decades ago by several industries into underground drinking-water reserves beneath Maryvale, where Baker has lived since she was a child. Her doctor and the lawyers think so, too.

Melody Baker had hoped settlements in the two massive class-action lawsuits against dozens of alleged polluters would help pay her medical bills, but now the lawyers have threatened to abandon the penniless Bakers.

It's not that Melody Baker doesn't have a good case.
It's just that she can be such a bitch.
Representatives of the four Phoenix law firms--Robbins and Green; Treon, Strick, Lucia and Aguirre; Beaus, Gilbert and Morrell; David Dannacher--said in court July 15 they want out. They want to sever most of their ties with Baker.

The sophisticated barristers said in court their professional relationship with the Maryvale housewife is no longer viable.

Translation: Melody Baker won't cooperate with the lawyers. She's not a "team player" with the six other class representatives. She takes up too much of her attorneys' costly time. She gets in the way, rejecting perfectly good settlement offers that the lawyers desperately need to pay the staggering expenses associated with the case. She upsets the other clients with her temper tantrums in the waiting room.

But she's always been that way.
That's no reason to dump her.
After all, her sophisticated lawyers should have factored this housewife's combative personality into their plans before they allowed her to be the lead plaintiff and a class representative in the Maricopa County Superior Court case that bears her name--Melody Baker v. Motorola, et al. In this giant lawsuit, she and thousands of other plaintiffs allege that dozens of polluters contaminated their property and thus reduced the value of thousands of homes all over the Valley. Her lawyers now say they want to retain her as a member of the class in the Baker case, but dump her as a class representative.

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