Report on the Lawsuit Industry, 2003
No 1, January 2006
Lawyers Inc. Update: Silicosis
In our first such Trial Lawyers, Inc. Update, we've
decided to focus on the scandalous behavior of the silicosis
line of business, operating as part of the lawsuit industry
behemoth, which has been recently highlighted in the editorial
pages of The Wall Street Journal and has received regular
coverage on the Center for Legal Policy's PointOfLaw.com
forum for the past year or so. The sordid ordeal was recently
brought to the public's full attention by U.S. District Judge
Janis Graham Jack's 249-page
opinion taking on the trial lawyers who brought the suits
and exposing how they manufactured evidence without regard
to the truth.
The whole ordeal is worth a review, as a great example of
how the tactics of Trial Lawyers, Inc. only serve to dilute
compensation to true victims, enrich its own pockets, and
cheapen the principles of justice and the scientific process.
Though the foundations of the sandcastle began even earlier,
The New York Times in 2003 exposed a growth
in silicosis plaintiff-advertising among Texas and Mississippi
law firms, and the accompanying struggle of insurance companies
to fight them. Insurance companies were right to be concerned.
One company cited a 1,200% increase in silicosis claims over
the previous year, despite the reduction in silica health
problems over the same period. Insurance companies cried "the
next asbestos"; Trial Lawyers, Inc., predictably, declared
they were zeroing in on another potentially lethal substance.
They were zeroing in on something, all right. Silica, which
is mostly highly purified quartz (or, for the lay person,
sand), is used to make glass, fiberglass, paints, and ceramics.
In other words, it is ubiquitous enough to make an ideal mass-tort
target. Repeated inhalation of silica dust (usually by mining
or metal foundry workers) can cause permanent lung scarring,
i.e., silicosis, which makes it difficult to breathe. Thousands
of lawsuits began to pour in, most premised on poor warnings
of the dangers (though U.S. Silica, the leading defendant,
said it had already "warned up and down the wazoo").
outpaced the rest of the country in silica litigation,
with more than 17,000 plaintiffs suing U.S. Silica (a leading
producer of silica sand) for allegedly giving them incurable
lung disease. Even overlooking the fact that less than one
percent of these plaintiffs were actually from Mississippi
(we'll save the arguments against forum shopping for another
more sinister things were in store for the Mississippi
[One silica plaintiff,] 62-year-old Noah Myers Bufkin
of Lucedale, said he was diagnosed in a mass screening as
having silicosis, although he can't say for sure he has any
symptoms... The same screening company diagnosed him as having
asbestosis seven or eight years ago, he said. He estimates
he has received about $10,000 from that suit... He doesn't
know of any symptoms he's suffering from silicosis or asbestosis.
"I'm saving up in case I do have a problem," he said. "For
a poor fella like me, every little bit helps."
Noah was not
the only double-dipper. Out of 8,629 plaintiffs claiming
injury from exposure to silica, 5,174 - that's 60% - had filed
claims seeking (and probably receiving) recovery for injury
from exposure to asbestos. (Incidentally, it is technically
possible to have both diseases, but every medical expert on
both sides says it would be extremely rare.)
The shenanigans throughout the south - soon dubbed "the screening
hub of the universe" - finally blew open in a silicosis trial
in Corpus Christi, Texas in late 2004. At an October deposition
a radiologist testified - to the dismay of the Trial Lawyers,
Inc. sponsors who had paid him $35/screening - "that he shouldn't
have signed his name to silicosis diagnoses that were subsequently
used as the medical basis for each of" 3,617 claims of silicosis.
After Texas U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ordered hearings
to determine whether false diagnoses had been used in the
mass silicosis case before her, the sandcastle walls began
to crumble and the hired-gun doctors began to jump ship left
- A Texas doctor admitted "he diagnosed more than 800 patients
during a 72-hour period . . . spend[ing] no more than a
few minutes reviewing X-rays and writing a report for each
- A Mississippi doctor revealed his equipment - owned by
a Century 21 real estate agent - and his office - a van
in a Sizzler restaurant parking lot.
- Another doctor admitted he never interviewed, examined,
or checked the work records of some 2,700 claimants - people
who received diagnoses letters stamped with his signature.
Oh, and many of them were people the same doctor had earlier
diagnosed with asbestosis.
- The head of the screening company that "diagnosed" 6,500
plaintiffs was a junior college dropout that taught himself
how to run an X-ray machine and take medical histories.
Physicians were withdrawing their diagnoses as fast as they
swore "to tell the whole truth"; others just flat-out denied
that letters with their signatures were even theirs. The scandalously
hackish nature of the so-called diagnoses soon became very
apparent. In the words of a physician who helped develop the
international standards for diagnosing silicosis, the diagnoses
were "stunning and not scientifically plausible." The infuriated
judge said she saw "great
red flags of fraud," and scheduled a sanctions hearing.
Judge Jack called all of the evidence inherently unreliable.
"It is apparent that truth and justice had very little to
do with these diagnoses," she said. "[T]hey were manufactured
for money." Identifying a
key strategy of Trial Lawyers, Inc., the judge said "the
clear motivation... was to inflate the number of plaintiffs
and overwhelm the defendants and the judicial system. This
is apparently done in hopes of extracting mass nuisance-value
Unfortunately, because the judge had no jurisdiction over
the vast majority of state-court claims, sanctions were limited
to about $8,000 (although she mused
that she was tempted to "sanction all the Plaintiff's lawyers
to go to those doctors for the rest of their lives"). However,
this month a separate federal grand jury, this time in New
York, is also investigating the ringleaders of the Trial Lawyers,
Inc. Silicosis Division.
All doctors are not hacks, and silicosis is a real disease
that still kills several hundred people per year. Hopefully
the federal grand jury, as Judge Jack powerfully did earlier
this year, can help expose the damage Trial Lawyers, Inc.
does to true victims, to the insurance industry, to medical
reliability, to the justice system, and subsequently, to each
Director, Center for Legal Policy
for Legal Policy
Manhattan Institute for Policy Research
52 Vanderbilt Avenue
New York, NY 10017