If they give awards for judicial integrity, a special one should go to U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack of Corpus Christi, Texas. Thanks to her painstaking 249-page order issued on June 30, the bell may have begun tolling for plaintiff lawyers who specialize in fraudulent mass torts.
In this instance it's an outrageous scam built around silicosis — an incurable and fatal lung disease caused by silica dust. Silica, a mineral found in 95 percent of the Earth's rocks, is used in everything from window panes to computer chips.
The danger comes when people breathe silica dust in jobs such as mining and sandblasting. The dangers are well-known. That's why sandblasters and miners wear masks and use water to suppress dust.
Consequently, silicosis has declined to the point of rarity. For instance, Mississippi — with nearly 2.9 million inhabitants — averages only 1.3 silicosis deaths a year.
Hold that figure in mind, because something unbelievable happened between 2002 and 2004: Lawyers filed silicosis claims on behalf of more than 20,000 plaintiffs in Mississippi alone. That's five times more than could be expected for the entire United States during the same time span — and the worst industrial disaster in recorded history.
Or was it? During those three years, the OSHA field office in Jackson, Miss., heard no reports of silica problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention knew nothing of this historic epidemic. Neither did the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the Mississippi Department of Health or the University of Mississippi Medical School.
It was as though a seismograph had recorded a major earthquake, but the teacups hadn't rattled. Something was wrong, and Judge Jack wanted to know what.
How had all these supposedly deathly ill people been found? The same way Henry Ford produced cars: on an assembly line. Mobile X-ray operators using tractor-trailer rigs had run hundreds of thousands of people through cursory screenings.
A typical operation was N&M, short for Netherland and Mason. At age 21, a junior-college dropout named Heath Mason teamed up with Holly Netherland and started N&M. In two years they generated 6,757 silicosis plaintiffs in Mississippi. That's 400 times more silicosis cases than the Mayo Clinic (which sees 250,000 patients a year) treated during the same period.
N&M was paid $335 for each positive diagnosis. Since 1996, the company has raked in more than $25 million. Not bad for a pair of slick operators with no medical training.
The official diagnoses were made by physicians. Plaintiff lawyers listed some 8,000 doctors for 9,083 plaintiffs. But when Judge Jack looked closer, she found that all 9,083 plaintiffs had been diagnosed by just 12 doctors. So she summoned the dirty dozen into court and put them under oath.
And brother, did she get an earful. For example, Dr. George H. Martindale, a radiologist from Mobile, Ala., signed 3,617 forms stating that "the diagnosis of silicosis is established within a reasonable degree of medical certainty." Under oath, however, Dr. Martindale admitted he hadn't seen or spoken to patients. He didn't even know the criteria for diagnosing silicosis.
Dr. Martindale read those 3,617 X-rays in 48 days, usually after hours, averaging $2,600 a day in fees. Another doctor had reviewed 1,200 cases in three days and diagnosed silicosis in 800 of them — without looking at a single X-ray.
But wait, it gets worse. Judge Jack looked closer at the 6,757 silicosis plaintiffs that N&M had generated. Comparing them with the names of people who had filed claims against the Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust (established for asbestos claims), she found 4,031 names on both lists — people supposedly suffering from asbestosis and silicosis. We quote from Judge Jack's order:
The magnitude of this feat becomes evident when one considers that ... a golfer is more likely to hit a hole-in-one than an occupational medicine specialist is to find a single case of both silicosis and asbestosis. N&M parked a van in some parking lots and found over 4,000 such cases.In fact, the lawyers had simply taken former asbestosis claimants, many of whom had already been paid for that disease, and recycled them as silicosis claimants. Judge Jack called it correctly: "These diagnoses were driven neither by health nor justice: They were manufactured for money."
Unfortunately, Judge Jack didn't have jurisdiction to try - or more likely, dismiss - the cases. Of the 111 that came before her, she sent 90 (representing nearly 10,000 plaintiffs) back to Mississippi courts for further action.
Amazingly, this was the first time a judge had scrutinized the screening process that has mass-produced hundreds of thousands of bogus claims. Judge Jack ferreted out mountains of damning evidence. The way to stop abuses is criminal prosecution of the perpetrators: lawyers, physicians and X-ray screeners.
That wheel has already begun to turn. Informed by Judge Jack's evidence, a federal grand jury in Manhattan, N.Y. is reportedly investigating the lawyer-sponsored screening operations that generate diagnoses of silicosis and asbestos-related disease.
In the meantime, judges who have dozed for years while these con artists operated under their noses should follow Judge Jack's example: Wake up and smell the corruption. The stench is overpowering.
And now, thanks to Judge Jack, so is the evidence.