Thursday, January 8, 2009

Updated (x5): An Interesting Invitation and Some Digging: Asbestos.com

I got this e-mail yesterday:

William G. Childs,

I am Jesse Herman, the Awareness Coordinator at the Mesothelioma Cancer Center (www.asbestos.com). Lately I have been reaching out to attorney bloggers and site administrators in efforts to getting some of our information published. Your website seems like a good fit.

As you may know, homes built before 1980 likely have asbestos insulation in them. When homeowners remodel, they may expose themselves to asbestos, which could lead to the deadly cancer called mesothelioma. There are many environmentally safe and healthy ways to insulate your home and this is among the topics we like to discuss. Additionally, there are laws in place to help consumers and victims.

If this sort of content is something you think is helpful, I will attach an article for your site and you can let me know if it qualifies. Hopefully we can work together to help each other out.

Thank you for all your help,

Jesse Herman
Mesothelioma Cancer Center

(The only thing I have taken out is the sender's e-mail address.)

Sounds helpful, no?  And a look at the about page at Asbestos.com makes it sound good too: "Since 1995, Asbestos.com has been recognized as the web's leading resource for up-to-date information regarding asbestos exposure and resulting illnesses."  How nice! And look, the New York Times quoted one of their staff and referred to the site as simply "an asbestos information web site."

As is my (admittedly geeky) wont, I thought I'd look around a bit.

Um...wait.  The domain has indeed been registered since 1995.  But let's look through the wayback machine a bit.  At least in 2003 Archive.org reveals a blog with indie music discussion and stuff about design (I think associated with this non-law firm), which is a little odd, and as of 2006 it was just a domain parking site.  So maybe not so much with the "since 1995" thing.

Let's look around the actual site some more.  If you scroll down to the bottom you learn that it's sponsored by the Peterson Law Firm, which is, of course, an asebestos law firm (plaintiff-side).  According to the disclaimer, the firm doesn't own Asbestos.com, and Asbestos.com says that it does refer people to law firms nationwide.  The Privacy Policy states that Asbestos.com is a "completely separate entity" from the Peterson firm.

But as of early 2007, Asbestos.com was plainly a site just for the Peterson firm (another example here, and a 2006 example, not naming a particular firm, is here).  Archive.org doesn't have anything after early 2007, so I don't know when it switched over to the current content.  That said, the controlling entity (as noted below) was formed in 2007, so that's not the end of the question.

So let's look a little further into the ownership of Asbestos.com and that statement that it's a "completely separate entity" from the law firm.  The domain registration reflects that it's owned by the "Asbestos & Mesothelioma Awareness Group" with an address different from that of the Peterson Law Firm.  Interesting, though, that the address (3208 East Colonial Dr. in Orlando) is that of a UPS Store that includes mailbox services, and is three miles from the Peterson firm's address.

Interesting.  Maybe we should look more at the Asbestos & Mesothelioma Awareness Group, the entity that at least owns the Asbestos.com domain.  SunBiz.org, the Florida Secretary of State's helpful but ridiculously slow site, shows an entity by that name with managers Carl H. Peterson IV and Raymond Apelado.  Peterson?  Founding partner of the Peterson law firm.  Apelado owns over 50 domains, including Truck-Accident.us, and appears to own Apelado Enterprises (an "internet marketing" company).  And the Asbestos & Mesothelioma Awareness Group's principal place of business according to its most recent annual report?  That'd be 20 N. Orange Ave., Suite 400, which is the address of none other than the Peterson law firm.  The Asbestos & Mesothelioma Awareness Group appears to have been formed in 2007.

What about that "Mesothelioma Cancer Center" referenced on the site and in the initial e-mail?  The SunBiz.org has no results for it.  CorporationWiki does not bring back any results for it either.  A University of Florida site refers to an entity with that name at MAACenter.org, which is -- yes indeed -- another law firm site, but not, seemingly, related to the Peterson Law Firm or Asbestos.com.  I think that the name is just a coincidence, and that the "Mesothelioma Cancer Center" doesn't exist as a separate entity, but I'm not sure. 

(As an aside: how interesting to have a public university's website listing of "Advocacy and Support Groups" link to a private law firm's site, but that is, perhaps, for another day.)

Does any of it matter?  I think so: A casual reader (a) would probably think the site is entirely independent, perhaps just getting funding from a law firm, but would not understand that the site is both for-profit and part of an LLC with a managing partner from that law firm; and (b) would probably think that any referrals to lawyers would be done to a range of firms across the country, when I would bet that a substantial majority go to the Peterson Law Firm (which may well refer out their cases; no idea if they actually do litigation or if they just do referrals).  The fact that the NYT cited it without noting the affiliation seems to suggest that the affiliation is not all that obvious.

Put more briefly: I think it's a stretch, at best, to call these entities "completely separate." 

I observe that I'm (no surprise) not the only one to get the e-mail; here's a real estate blogger post; here's one relating to cleanup after hurricanes. 

The posts seem factual and potentially helpful, I should note -- I'm not criticizing the content.  My concerns are about how clear it would be to information seekers that the information is coming from an entity that is clearly very closely connected to a for-profit law firm.

Back to grading.

Update: A reader points me to this very interesting discussion of whether to include a link to Asbestos.com in the Wikipedia entry for mesothelioma.  (Note: See update 3 below.)  Someone there did some of the same research I did, though not including all of the corporate control stuff or the UPS store.  He also notes this Parloff piece from last spring on a similar site.

Update 2: Welcome, visitors from http://asbestos.petersonfirm.com/cp/?page=../shared/edit I observe in our stats.  Also, be sure to read the comments below and the discussion of a similar investigation done by the guy at Samadhisoft.com.

Update 3: One "elkyyy" removed the Wikipedia discussion of Asbestos.com's efforts to be included in the Wikipedia entry; happily, it is archived here.  Hey, that's interesting: Elkyyy has attempted multiple times to post links to asbestos.com, and those efforts have been criticized.  And s/he's tried to hide those discussions multiple times.  (Note: the Talk page about asbestos.com has been restored by an editor who noted that its deletion was "unexplained.")

Update 4: As I noted in a separate post, Eric Turkewitz received some comment spam on behalf of Simmons Cooper.  Not long after he posted his concerns, that firm contacted him to apologize and assure him that it would stop.  As noted above, people from the Peterson Firm have visited this blog, but, rather than act along the lines of the people at Simmons Cooper, they've stayed silent, and someone, from either Asbestos.com or their firm, has attempted to scrub the Wikipedia talk page.

Update 5: Gene Apelado, the co-owner of Asbestos.com, called me today.  In brief, I think it is fair to say that he agreed with some of my criticisms above.  He stated that some of it was a combination of bad timing and other factors rather than an attempt to disguise the site's association with the Peterson Firm.  He did not identify any errors in my post.  He stated that the group will be making some changes to the site and its disclosures in an attempt to become more transparent and that he would notify me when those changes are made.

--BC

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Tracked on Jan 8, 2009 7:11:38 AM

Comments

Bob,

I was sent a link to your piece here by someone who has also read something similar I'd published earlier. Mine focused on the www.maacenter.org folks who appear to be associated with the EARLY, LUDWICK, SWEENEY & STRAUSS, LLC law firm - who seem to also specialize in Asbestos cases.

See:

http://samadhisoft.com/2008/09/18/mesothelioma-asbestos-awareness-center/

and

http://samadhisoft.com/2008/11/02/nastiness-on-the-internet/

One interesting wrinkle is that Jesse Herman seems to 'play' for both of these law firms; the one you discussed and the one I discussed. And this makes me wonder if a small business hasn't grown up where in individuals hire themselves to law firms to write articles to drive traffic to the law firms and then are reimbursed based on some measure of their success.

A snaky business indeed.

Cheers!

Dennis

Posted by: Dennis | Jan 8, 2009 4:05:55 AM

Hi Dennis,

(Bill, not Bob.)

I'd come across your post after doing mine (or maybe the same person sent me the link to yours?). Looks like you and I have similar reactions to that sort of inquiry.

I had not noticed that Herman was involved in both. You may well be right, or maybe he just changed employers. I have the sense that the lead-generation business in the toxic torts context is relatively small.

Best,
Bill Childs

Posted by: Bill Childs | Jan 8, 2009 4:09:48 AM

I'm posting this as a lawyer without affiliation to either of the sites listed above, but one who is extremely familiar with toxic litigation. I would start by saying that I keep a close eye on what "competitors" are doing in this space, which is the only reason I found this post. I definitely see the points that both of you make. When you have a site ranked at the top of the search engines (one of the ways they do this is from getting posts and links from people like you), there really is no reason to be deceptive WHATSOEVER. I have followed Peterson's sites, the MAA Center, and many others like them for some time. I can tell you, as a lawyer, the chance that two law firms that likely compete over signing cases and are in completely different states working together is HIGHLY unlikely. MAA Center is clearly sponsored by a firm in Connecticut that is widely known. The Peterson firm has been doing this for some time as well and is a known entity across the country. For all intensive purposes, both firms are respected in my industry. Some slight changes in language on the Peterson family of sites could rectify any legal or BAR concerns.

On the other side of the coin is a point I won't push too far. Asbestos is right up there with Cigarettes as one of Corporate America's deadliest secrets. I've represented a handful of Mesothelioma victims in recent years- I can tell you that all of them are now dead. I can also tell you that these are blue collar, hard working folks (about half of my clients served our country). The "dirty documents" in the Asbestos industry are no longer a secret. Pages and pages of corporate documents detail the fact that these companies that were booking billions and billions of dollars knew that they were poisoning their workers. Why do you think an asbestos case can be worth over $1M for a victim? There is a clear burden of proof that the corporations were at fault.

My point here guys is this: Who are the real "bad guys"? Is it law firms putting out (in these two cases, legitimate medical) information that gets victims to a Doctor or clinic and may drive them to a law firm that could get their poor families some money to survive when they are dead in 6 months? It is completely fair to scrutinize the practices of personal injury firms. For a long time they've taken excessive fees and utilized unscrupulous tactics to sign patients- ambulance chasers if you will. The Bush administration and more local legislative bodies have done their fair share to limit punitive damages and cap cases in recent years to neutralize the PI lawyers as best they can. With all this said, I definitely think that we should all be concerned with the fairness in which PI lawyers are signing cases. There is a code of ethics that we have a duty to abide by. I'm just not sure folks that we're pointing the gun at are the right people here.

Posted by: Anonymous | Jan 8, 2009 8:08:58 AM

Hi Anonymous Lawyer,

Nothing I said should be seen as a defense of asbestos as a product, or of asbestos manufacturers. And I agree (and noted) that I don't think the MAACenter site is affiliated with Peterson; just noted a similar name and efforts. And there's nothing nefarious about having similar marketing efforts; if it works for one firm, it will probably work for another. It's interesting to see the same name pop up for a couple of different firms, but I assume that's just one competitor hiring away from another.

But, as you properly note, the wrongful conduct of a defendant doesn't justify improper conduct by a plaintiff (or their counsel). I don't think there's a shortage of genuinely independent information nor, as you say, any reason for a good plaintiffs' firm to be deceptive. When there is deception, I -- I think reasonably -- get suspicious. When (right after my post) someone tries to remove the Wikipedia discussion about why the links to asbestos.com were inappropriate, I get more so. When a site says that it has been a definitive resource since 1995 when it hasn't been, I get still more so. If there's no reason to be misleading, why is it? If it's aimed at obtaining clients -- a legitimate aim -- why not say so?

Posted by: Bill Childs | Jan 8, 2009 8:17:00 AM

Bill,

I am not a technical guy and not familiar with Wikipedia so I was not clear what you were talking about. When I went to the page you referenced, nothing was there. Now I think I understand what you're saying. Like I said, I am not affiliated with that firm and can't explain it.

One explanation that I'm thinking of now is that the Peterson Firm may not be "technical" either. They may employ someone who is being deceptive and putting them at risk but may not even be aware of it. I have a "web guy" who does everything from fix my computer to placing my adwords on Google. I try to keep a close eye on what he does but he could be making black magic in the basement for all I know.

I still stand by my opinion that we're pointing fingers at the wrong folks. You may know better than me but I'm not sure you could make the case that anything the Peterson firm is doing is illegal or against the rules.

Impressive research, though, and very interesting to get an eye into what a couple of my competitors are doing!

Posted by: Anonymous | Jan 8, 2009 8:45:20 AM

Anonymous,

It is possible that the Peterson Firm is unaware of the efforts, though I assume they know that there are people being very aggressive on their behalf (and I'm not sure ignorance would justify it for me).

But let's look at some basics that I think you'd agree with. Asbestos.com makes an obvious effort to make itself look like it is independent of the Peterson Firm ("completely separate," "not owned," etc.). It acknowledges sponsorship, but not much more. In actuality, it is not independent in any colloquial sense: its LLC has as one of its two managing directors the founding partner of the Peterson firm (the other is a marketing guy); its principal place of business is at the Peterson Firm; its mailing address is a drop box three miles from the Peterson Firm.

If a lawyer from the Peterson Firm spent two minutes looking at Asbestos.com, that person would recognize (a) that it is trying to make the effort to show independence, and (b) that it is not in fact as independent as it states. So, entirely apart from the wikipedia matter, etc., there's at least an issue there -- maybe enough for inquiry notice? I really don't think there's any question there that the site is not as clear as it could be.

I have not (and do not) say that the firm has done anything illegal or against the rules; I don't know the Florida bar's rules on advertising but I assume they do. But of course, many things can be confusing or misleading without being illegal or unethical. This, I think, at least fits into that category.

I'm glad there are good aggressive plaintiffs' firms, and I don't begrudge them their opportunity to obtain clients. And as I said in the post, their information seems good and accurate. And maybe you're right and that the sketchier conduct is done without their approval. Does that excuse it? I don't think so; I think when your business model is so dependent on marketing, you have an obligation to stay on top of that. It took me about an hour to pull together the stuff in this post, but it's all stuff within their control and it wouldn't take very long for them to find it.

Just since you are new here, we post plenty of stuff that would be seen as generally favorable to asbestos plaintiffs; for example, we had a guest post for a week regarding W.R. Grace's conduct in Montana (vermiculite rather than asbestos, but relevant). And I see this as much more about lawyer advertising more generally than asbestos specifically. The fact that I am glad there are good asbestos lawyers out there doesn't mean criticizing their methods for getting client is inappropriate.

Posted by: Bill Childs | Jan 8, 2009 9:04:59 AM

All fair points. My "web guy" put me on to this blog and I've now got it bookmarked. I'll check back from time to time.

Posted by: Anonymous | Jan 8, 2009 9:30:44 AM

this is good information. my mom was recently diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma and i am just looking for some information and answers. thank you.

Bill notes: Look at that, comment spam on an asbestos-related post! I have removed the web link that they're trying to advertise from the comment, but "katy" was linked to malignant-mesotheliomablog DOT com, owned (along with nearly 1,000 other domains) by one Michael Martin (http://whois.domaintools.com/malignant-mesotheliomablog.com). Looks like it's someone mostly trying to get ad revenue -- i.e., it's not for a lawyer -- but it's still comment spam.

Posted by: katy | Jan 10, 2009 7:25:07 AM

Bill,
I just posted on my milblog about how I was approached by the veterans outreach rep from Asbestos.com and was warned by the outrageous claims in the "story" they tried to get me to post. I have since found a number of blogs with almost the exact same BS targeted at different types of audiences. What a racket. Thanks for the info on here it was very helpful in my own research.

Posted by: The Heavily Armed Tourist | Mar 30, 2009 5:31:41 AM

Wow this is very interesting. I was asked by these guys with the identical email you posted to write about them on my Real Estate blog. It seems real shady if they are using the site for other things besides posting on the dangers of asbestos. After reading this I am glad I did not take them up on their offer!

Posted by: Hopkinton MA Real Estate | Oct 25, 2009 3:52:44 PM

Interesting post! I agree that it's not good for a site to be misleading, as when representing one company without making that clear.

I own a mesothelioma Blog site, and I'll admit that I run the site purely for the profits involved, but that's obvious from my site, and the information on the site (as well as the relevant adverts there) is likely to be useful to some people. I guess tha main point is that I am not misleading anyone . . . it's obvious to anyone with some relevant knowledge that my site is set up to make a profit, but that it will only do so if the info is USEFUL in some way.

cheers

TG

Posted by: Thomas Goldman | Dec 8, 2009 6:45:52 AM

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