Judge Jack's fury over asbestos fraud ignored by state courts

Steve Korris Oct. 4, 2007, 6:00am

Judge Janis Graham Jack

Asbestos/silicosis diagnosing doctors take the Fifth during a Congressional hearing in July 2006.

Does anyone remember how a Democratic judge in Texas defied her party's devotion to mass torts, exposed 10,000 phony suits, imposed a whopping sanction, sparked investigations and instigated reforms?

Of course no one remembers. It never happened at all.

True, U.S. District Judge Janis Jack of Corpus Christi erupted in 2005 when she caught doctors practicing law and attorneys practicing medicine.

True, people said her flaming 249-page order excluding testimony from doctors in silicosis suits would change the litigation landscape.

Jack, however, cured only one percent of the fraud. She trusted state courts to cure the other 99 percent.

She retained jurisdiction in 100 cases out of 10,000 and remanded the rest to 19 courts in Mississippi and a few courts in other states.

Plaintiff attorneys dropped about half the suits she remanded, according to Mississippi newspapers, but apparently thousands of suits remain open.

Jack set sanctions against plaintiff attorneys at $825,000 but she collected only $8,250, counting on state courts to collect the other 99 percent.

Apparently no one paid a dime.

In Vicksburg, Miss., defendants in the biggest clump of suits filed a motion for sanctions and attached Jack's order.

Circuit Court Judge Isadore Patrick denied the motion in 2006, finding insufficient evidence for sanctions.

Attorney Richard Laminack of Houston gloated to Texas Lawyer magazine that Jack's order was "much ado about nothing."

"Judge Jack was in over her head," Laminack said.

In courts around the nation, countless asbestosis and silicosis suits remain open on the strength of diagnoses from a dozen doctors Jack exposed.

All have escaped accountability except Ray Harron of Bridgeport, W.Va., who gave up his license to practice medicine in Texas.

Jim Copeland of the Center for Legal Policy in New York City said, "There has been no punishment for the lawyers."

He said hundreds of thousands of asbestos cases are pending nationwide.

"It needs to be said that there is a lot of fraud out there where there has not been prosecution yet," Copeland said.

He said his group has hired researcher John Wylie to write a report on the impact of Jack's order.

Wylie wrote "Forty Billion Dollar Scam," an article on asbestos suits, in the January issue of Reader's Digest.

Wylie said "stuff still goes on" in spite of Jack's order but he said she exposed most of the worst doctors.

"Their cases are going down the toilet," Wylie said.

He said defense attorneys around the nation are trying to weed out suits that depend on diagnoses from doctors Jack exposed.

"They are not making as good progress as I would like to see," Wylie said.

He said Harron will never practice medicine again.

"His diagnoses are gone and with that goes a lot of cases," Wylie said.

A Congressional committee called the doctors to a hearing in July 2006 and the doctors invoked the Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination.

He said if a plaintiff ever again offers one of them as an expert, the defense can have him testify that he took the Fifth before Congress.

"Even biased judges don't like that," Wylie said.

He said he had high hopes for Congress after the hearings but, "They just didn't do anything with it. It was a huge waste of good effort."

"Even when the Republicans were in control, they were dragging their heels right up to the summer of 2006," Wylie said.

"I'm a Democrat. I ran for statewide office as a Democrat. But if you think you might lose control of Congress, wouldn't you take your investigations as far as you could?

"Wouldn't you try to take your best investigations and move them so far that the other side would look bad if they didn't pursue them?"

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