Clinical expert questions rise in lawsuits despite decline of silicosis cases
A renowned pulmonologist who specializes in a variety of end stage lung diseases asserts there is no medical explanation for the thousands of new silicosis lawsuits that are being filed in state and federal courts across the country, nor is it at all likely that these claimants also can suffer from asbestos-related diseases.Even before retiring from the state of Illinois in 1997, laborer Charles Trotter claims he suffered breathing problems. He was exposed to asbestos and silica.
"For the last 10-20-30 years the disease has been decreasing,” said David Weill, M.D., associate professor at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver and a practitioner in a large medical office. Workplace safety standards are responsible for the reduction in exposure, he says.
Weill, who testified before a Senate Judiciary Committee on the subject in February, said that from a clinical perspective the numbers of silicosis cases has declined to the point where “you can go a pretty long time period of time without ever seeing a new case.”
"But on the other hand, we're seeing an explosion of lawsuits, even though all evidence of the disease” is declining, he said.
Last week in Madison County, a Texas asbestos litigation firm, Brent Coon & Associates, filed 172 lawsuits—139 asbestos and 33 silicosis. Of the 33 silicosis claims, 11 of the plaintiffs filed simultaneous asbestos suits.
Weill, who has been an x-ray reader, questions the efficacy of mass screenings which produce dual asbestosis and silicosis diagnoses. He calls those kinds of readings “intellectually dishonest.”
While he agrees there is a certain amount of subjectivity associated with reading x-rays, there is no mistaking the two distinctly different diseases on film. It is also improbable that a person could suffer from asbestosis and silicosis.
"The bottom line is, is it possible?” he conjectured. “Yes, in that sense anything is possible.”
"But people that have seen thousands of cases have never seen it occur.”
He cited a 2004 study of Chinese factory workers whose work conditions were not regulated by occupational and safety hazards standards.
"Even in the case of examining Chinese workers subjected to extremely heavy exposure, it was not seen.”
Weill, who has also been involved in lung transplants, is about to become director of the lung and heart program at Stanford University.
The Record interviewed two Chicago-area retired workers by telephone regarding the recent lawsuits filed on their behalf in Madison County.
Charles Trotter, 72, of LaGrange and Richard W. Koldoff, 62, of Berwyn, are both represented by Brent Coon & Associates and participated in asbestos and silicosis screenings their attorney sponsored.
"I used to get stuff in ceilings....and I was grinding a lot," said Trotter. He used to have trouble “catching his breath” at work.
On Sept. 30, 2003, Trotter participated in a screening at his union hall in LaGrange.
"The test came out and I had both of them," Trotter said. "They said I would get back some money," Trotter said.
"They had a big outfit," Trotter said describing a mobile unit that contained "a lot of breathing equipment."
Trotter said the illness does “affect” him, but otherwise, the volunteer ordinance enforcer for the village of LaGrange enjoys good health.
"I drive around and write tickets for high grass."
Richard W. Koldoffis a retired General Motors worker who participated in a screening at the same LaGrange union hall, but believes the screening took place in 2001 or 2002.
"A pulmonologist looked at my chest x-rays and saw something," Koldoff said.
Koldoff said even though he felt fine, he agreed to go through the screening. He was "shocked" by the results.
"In my upper lungs I had silicosis and in my lower lung asbestosis.
"I talked to the doctor and he said it was inoperable."
In spite of the grim prognosis, Koldoff said he feels "ok."
Koldoff recently asked a pulmonologist at Loyola University to review his x-rays to confirm the diagnosis.
“He told me to live life to the fullest,” he said.
"Occasionally I get a cough," he said. "But I think a lot of that is nerves. My mother used to cough a lot. I think I inherited that."