Toxic tort tide on a turn

Steve Korris Oct. 14, 2005, 5:44am

U. S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack

For anyone who wonders if the tide of toxic tort litigation has turned, a New York Times article should erase all doubts.

The Times ran a story Sunday, Oct. 9, that made corporate defense attorneys look brave and brilliant while making plaintiff attorneys look utterly corrupt.

The headline announced, “The Tort Wars, at a Turning Point.”

Reporter Jonathan Glater explained how companies that routinely settled asbestosis claims have begun fighting back against silicosis claims.

By forcing plaintiffs to produce evidence of silicosis symptoms, he wrote, companies may have changed the rules of mass tort litigation.

Glater based his story on a ruling that U. S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack of Corpus Christi, Texas, delivered in June.

Jack declared medical evidence behind silicosis claims worthless. She wrote, “These diagnoses were driven by neither health nor justice: they were manufactured for money.”

Glater credited defense coordinator Daniel Mulholland of Jackson, Miss., with the astonishing discovery that most of the plaintiffs had previously filed asbestos claims.

With this discovery, Glater wrote, “the defense team had successfully undermined all the claims their client faced.”

Success for the defense in Corpus Christi has not closed the silicosis struggle. Texas attorney Brent Coon has chosen to relocate the contest to Madison County.

Coon filed 34 silicosis suits in Madison County in September. He also filed 140 asbestos suits that allege exposure to both silica and asbestos, apparently retaining an option to convert these to silicosis suits.

Coon did not file the claims that upset Judge Jack. She singled out O’Quinn, Laminack and Pirtle of Houston, ordering the firm to pay $8,250 in sanctions.

American Lawyer magazine, in its October issue, reported that Judge Jack “grilled” attorney Richard Laminack about 82 asbestosis claims at a hearing in August.

Reporter Carlyn Kolker wrote that Judge Jack said, “Sixty of 82 have also previously had asbestosis claims, is that correct?” Laminack said he had doubts.

Judge Jack said, “You doubt that they had claims, or you doubt that they actually had asbestosis?” Laminack said, “Both.”
Kolker, like Glater, put plaintiff attorneys in a negative light. “Suffering from both asbestosis and silicosis is, statistically speaking, nearly impossible,” Kolker wrote. “Yet, more than 4,000 silica plaintiffs had previously filed asbestosis claims.”

Readers of the articles by Glater and Kolker may not have known about Judge Jack’s bombshell, but business owners and their attorneys have celebrated it for months.

In July, the ruling set a hopeful tone at a U. S. Chamber of Commerce conference, “Diagnosing for Dollars,” in Washington.

Corporate officers and attorneys at that event agreed that the ruling had given them new momentum. They encouraged each other to stick with the vigorous strategy that cracked the Corpus Christi case.

Speakers at the event praised recent changes at the Madison County courthouse, though one warned that the county could change back to its old ways in a day.

More News