Silicosis: Industrial disaster needed to support 'phantom epidemic'

Steve Korris Oct. 11, 2007, 6:36am

Judge Janis Jack

Brent Coon

Honest doctors don't find asbestosis and silicosis in the same X-ray, but a pack of doctors claimed they found both thousands of times.

U.S. District Judge Janis Jack of Corpus Christi, Texas, branded their diagnoses as a "phantom epidemic," but she failed to banish the phantom.

Though she kicked about 10,000 silicosis suits back to Mississippi for proper burial in June 2005, about half remain active.

While the phantom epidemic eased in Mississippi that summer, Brent Coon of Beaumont, Texas, spread it to Madison County.

Weeks after Jack blistered attorneys and doctors for pretending that X-rays could show asbestosis and silicosis in the same person, Coon filed separate silicosis and asbestosis suits for 11 plaintiffs in Madison County.

Between Sept. 27 and 28, 2005, his firm brought a total of 138 asbestosis and 33 silicosis suits here. On Nov. 27, 2006, Coon filed another set of silicosis and asbestosis claims on behalf of two plaintiffs.

All of the cases were later placed on the court's deferred docket where they remain motionless until such time a plaintiff shows symptoms of illness.

The persistence of the epidemic shows the confidence among attorneys that they can pursue claims without consequences.

At least Jack tried to stop them.

About 10,000 cases landed in her court for multi district discovery after defendants removed them from state courts.

She presided over depositions of doctors, taking a step beyond judges who stay on call to resolve conflicts in depositions.

Under her glare doctors recanted diagnoses and one asked for a lawyer.

Jack signed a 249-page order detailing misdeeds of doctors and lawyers.

She found that lawyers practiced medicine and doctors practiced law.

She found that silicosis plaintiffs had previously filed asbestos suits.

Disregarding the nonsense, she rested her opinion on science from the Centers for Disease Control and federal regulators.

She pointed out that deaths attributable to silicosis in the United States declined from 1,157 in 1968 to 187 in 1999.

She wrote that one would anticipate eight new cases a year in Mississippi and 1,204 in the U.S.

She wrote that 40 plaintiffs filed silicosis claims in Mississippi in 2000 and 76 filed them in 2001.

"However, in 2002, the number of new Mississippi silicosis claims skyrocketed to approximately 10,642," she wrote.

She wrote that 7,228 were filed in 2003 and 2,609 were filed in 2004.

"…[T]hese claims suggest perhaps the worst industrial disaster in recorded world history," she wrote.

"One would expect local health departments and physician groups to be mobilized," she wrote. "One would expect a flurry of articles and attention from the media such as what occurred in 2003 with SARS."

"But none of these things have happened," she wrote.

"…[O]n a chest x-ray, silicosis presents with small, rounded opacities, in the upper or mid zones of the lungs. By contrast, on a chest x-ray, asbestosis presents with irregular linear opacities, primarily at the bases and periphery of the lungs.

"Also, unlike with silicosis, in cases of asbestosis, 'pleural thickening' is common."

She wrote that pulmonologist David Weill testified to U S. Senators that he never saw asbestosis and silicosis in the same person.

She wrote that he said, "Even in China, where I saw workers with jobs involving high exposure to asbestos and silica (such as sandblasting off asbestos insulation), I did not see anyone or review chest radiographs of anyone who had both silicosis and asbestosis."

She wrote that physician Theodore Rodman testified that among thousands of chest x-rays he could not remember one with clear findings of both.

She wrote that former federal regulator John Parker testified that he had never seen both in the same person.

"The unsound nature of the diagnoses is betrayed not only by the opportunistic transformations of asbestosis reads into silicosis reads, but also by the improbable consistencies among the silicosis reads," she wrote.

"Not only does a false diagnosis detract from the person who has silicosis, but it potentially harms future silicosis prevention.

"Those suffering the effects of the disease do not need an inflated number of claims to lend gravitas to their situation. Their tragedy stands on its own."

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