Sand storm

The Madison County Record Oct. 2, 2005, 11:41am

When trendspotting, the most fashionable have spies on the coasts. But the most sue-happy—- they look to the Lone Star State.

So be it that Texas lawyers blew into Madison County’s court last week armed with the most moddish of lawsuit topics. “Silicosis,” or a disease caused by inhalation of sand, is dubbed the “new asbestos” in legal circles. And Beaumont-based lawyer Brent Coon— a zealous silicosis champion—is vying to become his industry’s Paris Hilton.

Translated, for lawyers in vogue this all means silicosis has the potential to be highly lucrative. That’s given they’re familiar enough with the business model that helped asbestos mint so many counselor-millionaires.

We know that model well around these parts. Get a mass of cases, find a plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction like Madison County, and overwhelm the court by filing the lawsuits together. Then propose a settlement demand, making it crystal clear that it’s cheaper for the defendant to buck up than pay their legal bills.

As applied, Brent Coon & Associates filed 33 silicosis cases here last week, each on behalf of a separate State of Illinois worker once involved, allegedly, with sandblasting activities.

It’s truly sad that when people make charges of serious sickness in our courts these days, our first inclination is not to believe them. But given the past bad behavior of plaintiff’s attorneys and the doctors they pay to “diagnose” these sicknesses, we’d be naïve to accept such claims at face value.

In July, a federal judge in Texas recommended throwing out all but one of some 10,000 similar silicosis claims in her court, after it was revealed that the diagnoses were dubious. Some 60% of the plaintiffs had also previously filed asbestos lawsuits.

“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 asbestos,” wrote Judge Janis Jack in her opinion.

That a Record analysis found at least one-third of Coon’s cases involved plaintiffs who have also filed asbestos claims in Madison County colors us skeptical. And unless silicosis is suddenly on the rise in Illinois, the numbers just don’t add up.

In its last comprehensive study on the disease—in 1993-- the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) confirmed just 30 total Illinois cases of silicosis. And most were from workers involved in silica-related manufacturing. The CDC reported that only 16% of those stricken were exposed in “sandblasting operations”—the type Coon is alleging.

That would make for five total sandblasting-related silicosis cases. But 33 silicosis lawsuits? What gives?

"The problem I see," Texas plaintiff’s attorney and longtime silica specialist Mike Martin told Fortune magazine in June, "is with legitimate silicosis victims who are getting drowned out in a pool of questionable claims.”

Opportunistic attorneys. Questionable claims. Tragic consequences for real victims. Silicosis sure sounds like the “new asbestos” to us.

Here’s hoping the Third Circuit’s judiciary follows Judge Jack’s lead, closely scrutinizing each of these silicosis cases so as to assess their individual validity. Anything less would prove a disservice to Madison County taxpayers.

Our courts exist to dispense justice, not squeeze settlements for faddish lawyers.

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