Interviews November 20, 2013

“A Doorway into Some of the Most Challenging Courtrooms in the Country”: Colin Kelly on Toxic Torts

Colin Kelly, partner in the firm’s Product’s Liability and Litigation & Trial Practice Groups, was recently named Toxic Torts Lawyer of the Year in Lawyer Monthly’s Legal Awards 2013 Edition. Colin recently sat down to discuss the nature of his practice, and what he sees on the horizon in the world of toxic torts law.


Colin, what first drew you to focus your practice in the legal realm of mass/toxic torts?

I spent the first half of my law career working on predominately commercial litigation cases where ongoing business relationships and/or customer dynamics usually veered matters away from trial (though there were always exceptions). As I looked around at some of the messiest civil litigation cases going to trial in our firm, many of those cases involved toxic or mass tort claims.

Toxic/mass tort work is a doorway into some of the most challenging courtrooms in the country. The opportunity to try cases—at an early stage in my practice—is without a doubt the primary reason I focused on toxic/mass tort work.

You’ve just been honored as Toxic Torts Lawyer of the Year by Lawyer Monthly. With all due respect to modesty, what sets your practice apart in such a high-stakes industry?

I seem to have a propensity to find opportunity where others see only peril. For nearly a decade, I have managed one of the largest-volume toxic/mass tort dockets in the country for a large chemical company, despite the fact that it is in a seminal “tort hell” jurisdiction. The prospect of trying a toxic/ mass tort death case before a jury in Baltimore, South Florida or Philadelphia for a multinational company is considered by many defense lawyers to be a no-win proposition, but my trial team is always ready (and has tried cases) in all of these cities—sometimes on very short notice. That sets us apart.

A client calls in crisis. What is the first thing you tell them?

I tell the client: “You are in good hands.” Alston & Bird has an interdisciplinary team ready to help in any substantive crisis scenario (a catastrophic explosion, massive product recall, government investigation, congressional investigation, whistleblower action, data/security breach—you name it). Our team will help guide you through the crisis in a way that is consistent with your company’s culture and our law firm’s culture of collaboration.

What sort of toxic torts challenges have businesses—and their counsel—been facing in the last 12 months? In the upcoming year?

Over the last 12 months, the biggest challenge in the toxic tort area has been staying ahead of federal and state environmental regulations (including most notably, California’s Green Chemistry Initiative and related directives). Federal and state regulatory agencies are continuing to shift the burden onto manufacturers to affirmatively prove that their products (including all component chemical ingredients) are essentially 100-percent safe at any level of exposure and likewise have minimal environmental impact. This regulatory burden shift is creeping into the courtroom, where injured plaintiffs continue to push untested theories that a whole host of everyday products and substances are toxic/potential carcinogens at any exposure level and therefore should be eliminated and/or substituted.

Can you tell us a little about the kind of pro bono work you do for youthSpark, Inc., and as a member of the State Bar of Georgia Access to Justice Committee?

This September, I ended my third term as secretary of the board of directors of youthSpark, Inc., which was the first nonprofit organization in Atlanta to promote an end to child sex trafficking in Georgia. Catherine Payne from the Products Group has been voted into my role on the board going forward. Partially founded by a now-retired Alston & Bird partner (Terry Walsh), youthSpark has rescued and/or provided services to victims of child trafficking through the Fulton County Juvenile Court for over a decade.

At the request of the last four state bar presidents, I have served on the Georgia Bar Access to Justice Committee (AJC), which is a collection of the most active pro bono private practice lawyers, academics and nonprofit legal service directors in the state of Georgia. The AJC works closely with Georgia Legal Services and Atlanta Legal Aid, as well as several other pro bono partnership organizations, to address and expand indigent access to courts throughout the state.

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