By Paul Scheeler
Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch
Even Abraham Lincoln, a trial lawyer himself, might have been left speechless had he seen the kind of lawsuit abuse infecting our courtrooms today.
The problem is junk science – questionable, unfounded or misleading information that is put forth as medical or scientific fact. You don't need a medical degree to spot junk science. Just look for oddball theories or peculiar claims made by so-called "expert witnesses" that are not validated by any peer-reviewed research publications within the mainstream scientific and medical community.
What may be surprising is that in Illinois these so-called "experts" are free to testify about their theories in court as if the theory is fact – even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary.
Unfortunately, scientific and medical "facts" used in Illinois courts are not always based upon the best science but are often biased toward those who are paying the bills to produce evidence. Studies have suggested that doctors paid by personal injury lawyers may not be the best source for accurate medical assessments.
For example, the medical journal American Radiology reported in the summer of 2004 that when 492 chest X-rays deemed positive for asbestos-related illnesses by medical experts being paid by personal injury lawyers were reviewed by independent doctors, only 4 percent showed actual lung damage.
This abusive legal tactic took a major hit recently when a federal judge in Texas tossed more than 10,000 personal injury cases based on junk science. In a stinging rebuke of the plaintiffs, the judge wrote: "It is apparent that truth and justice had very little to do with these diagnoses – otherwise more effort would have been devoted to ensuring they were accurate. Instead, these diagnoses were manufactured for money."
At a recent Congressional hearing on junk science, an executive of a company that screens chest X-rays for lawyers testified that some law firms only "paid for people who were positive."
Illinois is not immune to the spread of junk science. Aggressive personal injury lawyers know that jurors are led to believe, because a witness is labeled an "expert" and is testifying in court, that the expert is credible and therefore their testimony should be strongly considered. Knowing this flaw in our system, personal injury lawyers repeatedly choose Illinois as one of their lawsuit venues of choice and continue to view our state as fertile ground to test out the best science money can buy.
It is encouraging that more judges are acknowledging the problem of junk science in their courtrooms. Judges from several states including Illinois are participating in a new program in which they attend science classes, taught by doctors and scientists, so they can better understand and interpret cases that involve complex scientific theories often presented in medical malpractice, product liability or intellectual property suits.
The proliferation of junk science impacts us all by propping up frivolous and questionable health care lawsuits that scare consumers, keep beneficial drugs off the market and limit medical research and innovation.
The Land of Lincoln deserves better. Illinois should require our courts to adhere to higher standards when admitting expert testimony on medical, scientific and technical matters. Common sense tells us that only those who are actually qualified in a specific field should be able to testify as an expert in it, and should be compensated only for their time – not their ability to help secure sizable judgments.
The junk science epidemic will only end when Illinois' courts adopt a straightforward approach to the use of expert witnesses to ensure that the testimony given is reliable and trustworthy.
Let's also push legislative and judicial candidates to pledge to weed out junk science by adopting this sensible approach that will restore common sense to our courts.
Honest Abe would expect no less.
By Paul Scheeler