Diagnosing asbestos fraud

The Madison County Record Apr. 17, 2005, 9:40am

U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack has kicked over a rock that is looking more and more like a domino.

Nestled near the Gulf of Mexico in her Corpus Christi, Texas courtroom, Jack’s grilling of the “doctors” responsible for “screenings” of wanna-be mass tort plaintiffs has been dramatic if it isn’t comic.

Her stunning findings—- uncovering blatant fraud and deception by doctors and plaintiff’s lawyers once relegated to anecdotal lore— will generate heat and light on asbestos tort and similar ‘businesses’ here and elsewhere.

The asbestos kings of Madison and St. Clair Counties should be on warning.

In Judge Jack’s case, the issue was silica—or fine sand common in sandblasting—rather than asbestos. The elements were familiar—but her scrutiny was completely novel.

10,000 “sick” plaintiffs, all “diagnosed” via x-rays by a handful of doctors led Jack, a former nurse, to wonder. How did these lawyers manage to round up such a horde?

When the judge started asking questions—that’s the novel part—all heck broke loose.

One Alabama radiologist “withdrew” his diagnosis on 3,000 patients. A West Virginia doctor admitted his diagnoses were mere form letters with his stamped signature. Both now have hired their own lawyers.

The Metro East’s asbestos attorneys surely know why. A 2003 account by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of a mass screening by Edwardsville’s Goldenberg, Miller, Heller & Antognoli described the process of fishing for clients in nauseating detail.

Post- Dispatch reporter Andrew Schneider quoted one chain smoking retiree at the firm’s Hazelwood, Mo. screening; "It's better than the lottery. If they find something, I get a few thousand dollars I didn't have. If they don't find anything, I've just lost an afternoon."

Another industrial worker on hand who never worked with asbestos said lawyers told him he was “probably” exposed anyway. He added, "the lawyers said I could get $10,000 or $12,000 if the shadow is big enough, and I know just the fishing boat I'd buy with that."

Doing their best Ferris Bueller imitations, these men take a ‘pulmonary impairment’ test where it pays to fail. According to New York law professor Lester Brickman, some workers are known to go to great lengths to earn that failing grade. He says they smoke cigarettes, chew tobacco, and even gnaw on actual asbestos just before their diagnosis in the hopes they can rig the exam.

And rig they do. A 2004 John Hopkins School of Medicine study re-examined 492 lung x-rays in asbestos lawsuits. 96% were presented to the court as ‘abnormal,’ but the John Hopkins researchers found abnormalities in just 4.5%.

That’s called fraud. And our justice system’s failure to confront it has caused the asbestos mess from which we all suffer, where fake plaintiffs win and the rest of us – including the truly sick-- lose.

Woe be the employees, stockholders and union pensioners of the 100+ companies forced into bankruptcy by the asbestos bar. Woe be those actually stricken with asbestos cancer.

For these victims, Judge Jack didn’t inquire soon enough.

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