There’s a courtroom drama unfolding in Texas with all the makings of a great Hollywood movie.
A massive lawsuit. Corporate defendants. 10,000 plaintiffs. A gaggle of unscrupulous lawyers and doctors. And a straight-shooting judge talking about “great red flags of fraud.”
But this is one true-life legal yarn that won’t be coming soon to your neighborhood multiplex.
Why? Because the corporate lawyers are the good guys, the plaintiffs’ lawyers are the bad guys, and most of the so-called injured aren’t. Doesn’t exactly fit the Hollywood mold, does it?
The case involves 10,000 claims of silicosis, a lung affliction caused by the inhalation of sand dust. While silicosis is distinct from asbestosis, the two maladies both impact the lungs – and attract trial lawyers like buzzards to road kill.
Overseeing the case is US District Judge Janis Graham Jack, a Clinton appointee. Jack knows the law and has – as a doctor’s wife and former nurse – more than a passing familiarity with medicine. Neatly summing up, she said, “This case is more about fraud and money than it is about criminal liability.”
The case has exposed lawyers and doctors willing to do just about anything for cash, including manufacture plaintiffs.
Crafty, the lawyers started out with thousands of folks identified in earlier cases as having lung troubles. Problem is, these people were said to have a different lung ailment, asbestosis.
In fact, more than half of the plaintiffs – 5,174 out of 10,000 – had previously filed asbestos claims.
That’s obvious fraud, given that independent doctors say the occurrence of both silicosis and asbestosis in the same patient is very rare.
And what of the other plaintiffs, those who weren’t asbestos retreads? While sleazy lawyers have traditionally chased ambulances, attorneys in the silica case didn’t trail anyone to a medical facility. Instead, they set up their own, putting an x-ray machine and a doctor in a trailer in the parking lot of a Western Sizzlin’ restaurant. Seriously.
Not only that, but the x-ray machine was owned by a real estate broker, the doctor wasn’t a radiologist, and no one had a license to take x-rays. Talk about a lawsuit waiting to happen.
Once this mess – the double-dipped plaintiffs, the trailer-made x-rays – came out in court, case doctors couldn’t abandon their diagnoses fast enough.
One doctor, who has since been subpoenaed by a New York City grand jury, flatly denied diagnosing the 3,617 plaintiffs he had diagnosed. Still unclear is what he thought his lawyer pals expected him to do for the $250,000 they gave him.
Another doctor blamed his secretary. Yet another said he hadn’t read the 255 diagnoses he signed because he is “very, very busy.” Probably safe to assume he wasn’t too busy to cash the lawyers’ checks.
Given the decades of abuse contingency-fee attorneys have given public companies, the public treasury and the public at-large, it’s nice to see the hunters become the hunted for a change.
Lawyers behind fraud-fattened silica and asbestos suits are also reeling from reform legislation enacted last year in Ohio and this year in Georgia, Texas and Florida.
Basically, legislators in these states think plaintiffs should show injury before being compensated. Seems like a pretty obvious, common-sense reform, but it is raising howls of protest from dollar-chasing lawyers.
In Washington, lawmakers are struggling to organize a massive industry fund to settle all outstanding asbestos claims. Some insurers and industry players are now balking at the scheme’s price tag ($140 billion) – and a clause that would allow more lawsuits when the money runs out.
A better approach would be a federal medical criteria statute that, like the state laws mentioned above, would require plaintiffs to be sick. Given all the lawyers and trial-lawyer money in Congress, however, it’s safe to say such reform won’t come quickly, if at all.
Even so, after the courtroom quake in Texas, mass substance-related lawsuits may never be the wide open playground they once were. And that would be great news for everyone but the black-hat lawyers.