Another Lawyer Hero
In some stories, it is easy to identify the hero.
In the New York Times bestseller, The Radium Girls, author Kate Moore tells a true story about awful workplace conditions in the early 20th Century. Through the 1920s and 1930s, young women worked in watch-making factories, painting glow-in-the-dark numerals on watch faces using radioactive paint. Their employers provided delicate artist brushes and required each woman to “point” the brush by licking the bristles each time she dipped the brush into the paint supply. Over twenty years, hundreds of these workers suffered radium contamination, which led to disfiguring tumors, rapid bone decay, and premature death. Radium poisoning was incurable, and many workers died from it before reaching age 25. The employers knew of the danger, but the business was lucrative, so they denied any liability and refused to pay for employee health care.
In that era, the law did little to protect workers from on-the-job health hazards. Through the 1920s, many workers sued, but with no real success. Courts dismissed several lawsuits against the watch-manufacturers, with no recovery for the workers. But eventually Chicago trial lawyer Leonard Grossman took up the fight. The Radium Girls describes Grossman’s efforts to win compensation for workers who were poisoned at a watch-making plant located in Ottawa, Illinois. The litigation led to a dramatic trial in 1938, where Grossman’s clients received a verdict holding the company liable for poisoning its workers. Within a few short years after that verdict, all of the radium dial-painting operations in the U.S. had closed.
The Radium Girls is a page-turner, a readable account of a trial that was closely-watched in its day. It is thoroughly researched, with a sweeping story that spans almost three decades.
Because Leonard Grossman was willing to take on a well-funded corporate defendant, against long odds, his clients finally received justice. And because of his hard work, thousands of factory workers may have been saved from near-certain death. Grossman is a hero for lawyers today, a reminder of how our work can make a big difference.