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Asbestos: Production — the great screening scam

Once plaintiffs’ lawyers attracted potential asbestos plaintiffs, they had to convert them into actual plaintiffs. This “production” process is at the heart of the overall asbestos litigation scam. As noted, the screenings typically occurred in vans or trailers in parking lots. The procedures inside were laughable:

Inside the trailers, screeners took “occupational exposure histories” (which were necessary to link plaintiffs to asbestos defendants), conducted breathing tests, and took X-rays that were later analyzed by medical specialists known as “B readers.” People with little or no medical training ran the screening clinics: high school students or clerical workers took patient histories, a crucial procedure in diagnosing lung disease. Glorified clerks composed the diagnoses and “signed” them with rubber stamps.

The evidence is overwhelming that these screenings were largely shams designed to identify as many individuals as possible as “impaired” with asbestos-related injury. The plaintiffs’ lawyers only employed 4 to 6 percent of the nation’s certified B-readers. Some were employed in staggering mass-production fashion: one doctor diagnosed some 88,000 patients, conducting 150 asbestos X-ray readings per day. Unsurprisingly, many of the doctors who were most employed by the asbestos litigation machine later disavowed their diagnoses under oath or pleaded their Fifth Amendment-right against self-incrimination.

Just how stacked were the screenings in favor of finding a positive diagnosis of injury? A study employing independent readers conducted by Johns Hopkins researchers looked at 492 X-rays processed by the screening clinics and found lung impairment in 4.5 percent of cases; the lawyers’ B-readers had identified asbestos-related injury in 95.9 percent of the exact same films.

While the fraud involved in asbestos screenings was fairly well known among those in the know, and had been documented extensively by Professor Lester Brickman (see, e.g., here), the real public break in exposing the fraud came in federal court in 2005, when Texas judge Janis Graham Jack documented on the record massive fraud in the silicosis cases before her court. Regular readers of Overlawyered and Point of Law are familiar with Judge Jack’s basic findings (see here), so I’ll only go over the high points. (Interested readers can refer to the pertinent section of the Trial Lawyers, Inc.: Asbestos report for more detail.)

In essence, Judge Jack discovered (through the diligent work of the defendant’s law firm) that most of the silicosis claims before here were filed on behalf of individuals who had already been paid for asbestosis. While medically possible, mutual occurrence of both diseases is highly unlikely; and the medical diagnosis of X-ray readings makes distinguishing between the 2 injuries rather easy, as “scars that asbestos causes look like threads, while the scars that silica causes look like BBs.” Dr. George Martindale, a doctor who had processed thousands of claims before Judge Jack, admitted that the language in his “reports” that formed the basis for the litigation came from the lawyers and screening companies, and he denied that they were actual diagnoses. Judge Jack held full hearings under the rules established by Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals and its progeny, and issued a comprehensive — and withering — 249-page decision:

These diagnoses were about litigation rather than health care. And yet that statement, while true, overestimates the motives of the people who engineered them…. [T]ruth and justice had very little to do with these diagnoses. Instead, these diagnoses were driven by neither health nor justice; they were manufactured for money. The record is not clear who originally devised this scheme, but it is clear that the lawyers, doctors and screening companies were all willing participants.

Since Judge Jack’s ruling, other scandals involving mass asbestos screenings have emerged, which I’ll document in due course. The key take-away from a broad litigation context is just how much difficulty U.S. courts have in dealing with complex medical evidence. Federal courts have improved significantly since Peter Huber wrote Galileo’s Revenge, in no small part due to Daubert and the cases that followed, but many state courts lack the procedural protections — or competence — that their federal brethren possess in handling these issues. Indeed, had Judge Jack not been a former nurse, she herself may not have been able to interpret the fraud before her. In mass tort cases, of course, handling the scientific evidence becomes all but impossible, as I’ll discuss next.

Asbestos: Part Deux

With Walter occupied on a deadline and Ted on the road, I’m happy to be back to wrap up my discussion of developments in asbestos litigation, as summarized in the Manhattan Institute’s recently released Trial Lawyers, Inc.: Asbestos report. As I noted last month, asbestos has an ancient history, and in the early part of the last century, it was deemed a “magic mineral”; its flame-retardant properties protected American naval vessels and schoolhouses from fire. (See here.) Unfortunately, asbestos exposure ultimately proved deadly, the plaintiffs’ lawyers pounced, and the American asbestos industry largely went bankrupt by the early 1980s. (See here.) The trusts created to pay out claimants from these bankrupt entities became a big business unto themselves, swamped with claimants and unable fairly or efficiently to process the claims. (See here.)

 What happened next, in the 1990s and early part of this decade, amounts in large part to the systemization of fraud, through a business model the trial lawyers developed to extract as much money as possible out of the asbestos well. As we point out in our Trial Lawyers, Inc. report, this business model “starts with marketing (recruiting plaintiffs), followed by production (eagerly screening prospective plaintiffs for purported lung impairment and usually finding it), packaging (bundling cases into a “mass” of tort claims), and sales (overwhelming courts and defendants to extract settlements).” At each stage of the process, the business exemplifies major problems with American jurisprudence. I’ll start with marketing.

Lawyers’ ability to “market” for clients is founded in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, which determined that attorney advertising is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment. That ruling may well have been right as a matter of constitutional law, but it effectively gutted prohibitions on attorney solitication of clients and led to attorney-driven litigation. In the asbestos context, solicitation of clients became truly laughable, as ne’er-do-wells attracted potential plaintiffs to screening vans parked outside union halls or strip malls:

Heath Mason, a junior-college dropout with no legal or medical training who made $25.5 million from asbestos litigation. Mason’s role was attracting potential plaintiffs to “screening clinics” that interviewed and “tested” them, usually in trailers hauled to restaurant, shopping-center, or motel parking lots. Mason would lure passersby with attractive women he called his “lawyer girls,” such as the two young lawyers he met at an unidentified convention in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and later persuaded to stand on a Fort Worth street corner with signs directing potential plaintiffs to an X-ray screening van in a Staples parking lot.

Today, marketing tactics are also of the sophisticated variety. As Overlawyered readers are aware, the most expensive Google ad-search terms involve “asbestos” and “mesothelioma.”

Asbestos litigation: the Manville Trust

Asbestos litigation continued to grow during the 1980s: by 1992, fully 100,000 claims had been resolved, but another 100,000, yet unresolved, had been filed.

A novel means of processing asbestos claims was initiated in 1988, when the Johns-Manville corporation emerged from bankruptcy and established the Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust, the first “bankruptcy trust” set up to pay out money to asbestos claimants. Unfortunately, plaintiffs’ attorneys controlled the trust’s claimants committee and set up procedures for the trust that were advantageous to themselves, rather than potential claimants. The trust rules minimized requirements of proof of actual injury or causation (exposure to Johns-Manville products). The trust thus paid out a lot of money quickly to the attorneys, all the while exhausting its funds for potential future claimants.

In just its first nine months of operation, the trust paid out some $500 million to 12,600 claimants — and by the end of 1989, 89,000 more claimants were outstanding. Eventually, the trust had to sharply curtail payments to claimants — to 10 percent in 1995, and 5 percent in 2001. Injured claimants were literally getting a nickel on the dollar. “As of June 30, 2006, the trust had received more than 773,000 claims and paid out about $3.4 billion–just $4,400 per claimant.”

Asbestos litigation: foundations

Asbestos litigation has been around a long time. Early on, nothing like modern product liability law existed (see Richard Epstein’s discussion here); lawsuits resided in workplace injury law when filed in the 1920s and 30s, and were soon subsumed in workers compensation reforms.

Modern asbestos litigation began after the Selikoff study was published in 1964. In December 1965, Texas attorney Ward Stephenson filed a case on behalf of Claude Tomplait, who had worked as an asbestos insulator. Four years later, Stephenson extracted a settlement for $75,000 from seven defendants.

Notwithstanding this meager beginning, Stephenson persisted in asbestos litigation and won a major victory in Borel v. Fibreboard Paper Products Corp., 493 F.2d 1076 (1973), in which the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found asbestos manufacturers strictly liable for their workers’ injuries. The Borel court rejected statute of limitations, contributory negligence, and assumption of risk defenses; and modern asbestos product liability litigation was born.

The litigation got another shot in the arm when New Jersey attorney Karl Asch uncovered the “Sumner-Simpson papers,” which “described in great detail the efforts of Raybestos, Johns-Manville, and other manufacturers to find out about the hazards of asbestos, develop strategies to deal with them, and–most important–to keep that knowledge from the public and workers.” These documents were put to great effect by South Carolina lawyer Ron Motley, who actually used the papers to convince a South Carolina circuit judge to grant a new trial after a jury had ruled in favor of asbestos defendants. Motley of course went on to become an asbestos super-lawyer and an architect of the multibillion-dollar multistate tobacco settlement; his antics are well-known to long-time readers of this site.

Two more foundational cases are worthy of mention. In 1981, the D.C. Circuit ruled that insurers who had written asbestos policies were liable for the maximum insured between exposure and diagnosis, rather than only in the year of diagnosis. See Keene Corp. v Insurance Co. of North America, 667 F.2d 1034 (D.C. Cir. 1981). Given the long latency between asbestos exposure and ultimate illness, the level of insurance exposure was suddenly massive. Circuit Judge Patricia Wald warned that the court’s decision “requires a leap of logic from existing precedent, for it concerns diseases about which there is no medical certainty as to precisely how or when they occur.”

In 1982, the New Jersey Supreme Court threw out the “state of the art” defense for asbestos manufacturers, in essence holding that it mattered not whether business practice was the best available to the industry at the time the injury occurred. See Beshada v. Johns-Manville Products Corp., 442 A.2d 539 (N.J. 1982). The court opined, “The burden of illness from dangerous products such as asbestos should be placed upon those who profit from its production and, more generally, upon society at large which reaps the benefits of the various products our economy manufactures. ”

Thus, in less than a decade, the law was radically shifted, and asbestos litigation was born: “The decade after Borel saw 25,000 asbestos cases filed. By 1981, more than 200 companies and insurers had been sued; by 1982, defendants’ costs had topped $1 billion.” But these early years were just the beginning…

Asbestos litigation: background

I’m happy to see that my initial post — which doesn’t really include any details of yet — has already begun to spark debate in the comments. I have thoughts on the views expressed, but I’ll begin with some background. This information might be old hat to those familiar with the asbestos mess, but it’s essential for those with little knowledge. This summary largely follows the account from the introduction to our Trial Lawyers, Inc.: Asbestos report.

Asbestos manufacturing in the United States was ubiquitous. At one point, asbestos-related industries employed as many as 2.5 million Americans. Asbestos commercial mining began in the U.S. in 1874, and after the Johns-Manville corporation was founded in 1890 with a patent for a process that blended short asbestos fibers with magnesia, asbestos manufacturing exploded: “asbestos consumption went from only 956 metric tons in 1890 to a peak of 803,000 tons in 1973.”

While asbestos ultimately proved deadly, it was originally thought to be a “magic mineral,” as it was dubbed at the 1939 World’s Fair. The word asbestos itself is derived from the Greek for “indestructible,” and the product is an incomparable flame retardant: it insulated generations of schoolchildren from fire and indeed fireproofed our World War II Pacific fleet.

But asbestos has also long been known to be dangerous when inhaled–as far back, perhaps, as the days of Pliny the Elder. In the early 20th century, asbestos was deemed as dangerous as lead and mercury (two products that have themselves spawned much litigation). In 1918, the U.S. Department of Labor declared that there was an “urgent need for more qualified extensive investigation” into the harms of asbestos, and in 1938, the U.S. Public Health Service issued a “good-practice” guideline for Threshold Limit Values of asbestos exposure.

Thus, asbestos was known publicly to be dangerous when virtually everyone suffering from asbestos-related illness was exposed. The extent of the danger, however, was not known definitively until 1964, when a seminal study by Mount Sinai Hospital’s Irving Selikoff established a definitive link between asbestos exposure and lung cancers and asbestosis.

Subsequently, evidence indicated that asbestos manufacturing companies knew more about asbestos’ dangers than they originally let on, and indeed in some cases hid that information from the public. Still, as my colleague Peter Huber pointed out in his review of Paul Brodeur’s Outrageous Misconduct, a much-cited book that harshly criticizes the asbestos industry, the asbestos companies’ early knowledge about asbestosis–asbestos-related lung injury that is rarely fatal, and was generally known–should not be confused with knowledge of the deadly lung cancer mesothelioma, which was exposed by the Selikoff study: “In his account of who knew what when–the core of his cover-up theory–Brodeur systematically obscures the difference between asbestos-related cancer and asbestosis, usually a much less serious disease, and understood and discussed in the Manville boardrooms much earlier.”

In any event, the original asbestos manufacturers like Johns-Manville have long been bankrupt due to litigation exposure. (Johns-Manville, ranked 181 on the Fortune 500 with over $2.2 billion in sales, declared bankrupcty in 1982 due to its looming caseload of 16,500 cases, and projections of up to 200,000 in the future.) The story of how that litigation evolved will be the subject of my next post.

Excited to be here to talk about asbestos

I can’t say how excited I am to be here as a guest at overlawyered — the first legal blog still in existence! I’ll never be the indefatigable blogger that is my colleague Walter, or my friend and fellow legal reformer Ted, but I jumped at the opportunity to come over here to Mr. Olson’s “other” blog (he and Ted are also the mainstays of the Manhattan Institute’s, to which I occasionally contribute).

Overlawyered’s long-time readers have doubtless read a lot about asbestos. And we’ve covered asbestos litigation very extensively over at Point of Law. But there’s a lot of new material in the Manhattan Institute’s just-released Trial Lawyers, Inc.: Asbestos, as well as a lot of background for those new to the subject. Over the next week, I’ll be going through both.

I’d urge anyone interested to read the entire report, available here. Those who want a quicker review of some of the newer material should read my column in the Washington Examiner, which ran yesterday. And there’s a good overview of my thoughts in an on-line interview available here.

I’ll be back shortly to begin my walk-through of the report, looking at the underpinnings of the trial lawyers’ big asbestos machine.