The AP is reporting that the paralegal who supplied documents in fight against tobacco companies died in Mississippi last week. As reported in the Star Tribune:
He worked for a Kentucky law firm representing the then-Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. and leaked thousands of pages of internal memos and studies concerning smoking and health that provided newfound ammunition to tobacco opponents.
The information made national headlines. News organizations reported the information showed Brown & Williamson executives knew decades earlier that nicotine was addictive and that they funneled potentially damaging documents to lawyers to keep them secret.
A few years later, the tobacco industry agreed to a massive settlement with the states over smoking-related health costs.
The paralegal, Merrell Williams, said of himself, “”I think to a lot of people Merrell Williams is a hero,” he said of himself in the interview. “I haven’t done anything wrong.” Certainly Williams isn’t the only one who regards him as a hero. What he did changed a lot of lives and may even have saved some. Still it is difficult to say he didn’t do anything wrong. He was after all a paralegal. Persons who take on that role assume the same obligation of confidentiality as the attorneys for whom they work. Words like “leaked” and “whistleblower” are euphemistic words that tend to obscure the fact that what he did almost certainly violated that obligation. It is wrong to violate that obligation.
Anyone who practices as a legal professional for over three decades will likely run into circumstances that make honoring that obligation very difficult. I certainly have. I recall many sleepless nights struggling with the implications of being bound by rules of attorney-client confidentiality. Each time the obligation to maintain confidentiality won that struggle. I honestly cannot say what I would have done in Williams’ position. But if I chose the path he chose I would not be able to shake the feeling that in order to do something right I had done something quite wrong.