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Government Affairs

Earlier this summer a Texas federal judge, Janis Graham Jack, in a scathing 249-page opinion, publicly excoriated approximately 10,000 silicosis claims brought before her court in a class action lawsuit against some 250 companies. Judge Jack not only condemned the silicosis claims, but she documented the fraudulent means by which the lawyers, doctors and screening companies had manufactured them.

While reviewing the evidence in this case, Judge Jack discovered that of the more than 9,000 plaintiffs who supplied information about their "diseases," the same nine doctors had diagnosed 99% of the claimants with silicosis. These doctors had been retained by law firms or "screening companies" that do mass X-rays on behalf of law firms searching for plaintiffs. The law firm in question in this case is now the subject of a federal grand jury investigation in New York.

According to The Wall Street Journal — which has provided excellent coverage of this case — when the physicians were deposed, they all but admitted they took their orders from the lawyers and screening firms. Apparently many of the doctors never even saw their "patients." Instead, the doctors signed blank forms for the screening company and let secretaries fill out the diagnoses. It was also reported that some of the doctors were, magically enough, able to perform 1,239 diagnostic evaluations in 72 hours, or less than four minutes for each evaluation.

But even more troubling is the fact that more than 65% of the plaintiffs who filed in this particular silica case had already been plaintiffs in an asbestos suit. It is a well-known fact that it is clinically impossible to contract both asbestosis and silicosis. Yet, some of the physicians associated with these screening companies have received nearly $5 million for their silicosis diagnoses.

Fortunately, Congressman Joe Barton (R-TX), chairman of the powerful House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Congressman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) have begun a congressional investigation into the individuals and firms responsible for recruiting and diagnosing claims of silicosis. Whitfield, who chairs the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, has been demanding records and information related to the diagnoses and practices of the doctors involved in the Texas lawsuit.

Let us hope that the congressional investigation can get to the bottom of the silicosis racket before OSHA is allowed to move forward with a federal standard addressing employee exposures. If claims for silicosis are being orchestrated to support studies that may ultimately be used as the basis for a future silica standard, let us hope that this investigation will help forestall federal regulatory action until we have all the facts before us. It would indeed be tragic to repeat the misfortunes of the asbestos companies and end up with bankruptcies throughout the construction industry because we failed to answer all the right questions.






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