Accuracy in Media

Correction:

In this August 17, 2005 Media Monitor, we wrongly published this statement, based on an editorial in the Wall Street Journal: ” Judge Jack blasted the lawyers, particularly the Houston firm of O’Quinn, Laminack & Pirtle. She required them to pay more than $800,000 of the defendants’ legal bills, and charged that their ‘clear motivation’ was ‘to inflate the number of plaintiffs and overwhelm the defendants and the judicial system.'”

Actually, the judge required the law firm of O’Quinn, Laminack & Pirtle to pay just over $8,000, or one percent of the Wall Street Journal’s previously stated figure. We apologize to the law firm of O’Quinn, Laminack & Pirtle, and to anyone else who was misinformed by our Media Monitor. Here was the Wall Street Journal’s correction:

Sanctions and Silicosis
July 18, 2005; Page A12

We’d like to apologize to the law firm of O’Quinn, Laminack & Pirtle for misstating the amount of its fine in our editorial last week on silicosis legal fraud in Texas. We reported that Judge Janis Graham Jack had required the O’Quinn firm to pay all $825,000 of the defendants’ legal fees, but the real figure is 1% of that amount.

No one should think, however, that this lesser sanction is due to any lesser disgust by Judge Jack with the firm’s legal practices, or for that matter the practices of the other plaintiffs’ firms that worked alongside O’Quinn. The federal judge had ruled on 111 silicosis cases — involving about 10,000 plaintiffs — remanding most to state courts with a blistering judgment about their illegitimacy. The one case over which she said she clearly had jurisdiction, filed by the O’Quinn firm, contained about 100 plaintiffs, or about 1% of the total.

In other words, Judge Jack felt that under the law she could sanction O’Quinn only for the claims that fell within her jurisdiction. However, at her March 14 sanctions hearing she also made clear that, if she had her way, everyone involved in bringing these fraudulent suits would come in for penalties, including the doctors who had delivered bogus silicosis diagnoses. She said her real wish was to “sanction all the Plaintiffs’ lawyers to go to those doctors for the rest of their lives . . . themselves, their children and their grandchildren.”

O’Quinn, Laminack & Pirtle requested another hearing on the sanctions because, as partner Richard Laminack told us on Friday, the judge “was wrong.” But later on Friday came news that Judge Jack had rejected that request. She issued a brief order saying the O’Quinn firm had already had “numerous opportunities to be heard” and ordered it to pay up, promptly.

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The earth shook under one of the largest and most powerful liberal special interest groups, the trial lawyers, but the media have barely noticed. A federal judge in Texas abruptly halted the latest class-action scam, and by doing so, has probably done more to halt these frivolous and scandalous lawsuits than any federal tort reform legislation could ever do. The Wall Street journal has editorialized about the case, but most of the major media have remained silent.

Judge Janis Graham Jack is a U.S. District Court Judge in Corpus Christi, Texas. She is also the wife of a medical doctor, and was herself a nurse. Judge Jack was in charge of approximately 10,000 cases involving claims of silicosis, which according to the Houston Chronicle, is the “oldest known occupational lung disease.” Following 20 months of pre-trial proceedings, Judge Jack, a Clinton appointee, wrote a scathing 249-page opinion, saying there was no basis for continuing federal jurisdiction, and she recommended that the evidence used by the plaintiffs should be thrown out. She didn’t hesitate to use the word “fraud.”

The extent of the apparent fraud is indeed shocking, and should lead to congressional hearings with the same passion and outrage that characterized such hearings as those that looked at the Enron scandal. The problem is that too many in Congress are part of the same special interest group that has perpetrated this fraud, and receive large donations from them.

For example, silicosis has been on the wane for many years, since its damaging effects have been well-known for so long. But the asbestos lawsuits, which have resulted in huge fortunes for many trial lawyers, saw silicosis as another opportunity. So they set up what the judge indicates was a giant scam.

Many of the suits were originally filed in Mississippi, considered a friendly state for this type of plaintiff lawsuits. According to testimony in the case, more than 10,000 cases of silicosis appeared in 2002 in Mississippi alone. The previous year there had been just 76 such cases. For a disease that averages fewer than 200 deaths a year in this country, all of a sudden beginning in 2001 there were more than 20,000 claims in Mississippi alone, which apparently caught the attention of ambulance chasers everywhere.

So what evidence of fraud did Judge Jack discover? For one thing, 99% of the plaintiffs who supplied greater detail of their ailments were diagnosed by the same nine doctors. They had all been retained by law firms or screening companies that, according to the Wall Street Journal, do mass X-rays on behalf of the firms searching for plaintiffs.

In many cases, the doctors never saw the patients, the people who did the X-rays were not radiologists, and one doctor performed more than 1,200 diagnostic evaluations in 72 hours. Another doctor diagnosed more than 3,600 patients with the disease, and admitted in court that he didn’t even know the criteria for diagnosing the disease.

Most shocking of all, perhaps, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, is that “more than 65% of the silica plaintiffs had previously been plaintiffs in an asbestos suit, even though it is clinically impossible to have both asbestosis and silicosis.” The Journal noted that it was these massive asbestos suits that were “largely blessed by the courts, that first allowed trial lawyers to co-opt doctors to create millions of phony claims and extort billions out of corporate defendants.”

Judge Jack blasted the lawyers, particularly the Houston firm of O’Quinn, Laminack & Pirtle. She required them to pay more than $800,000 of the defendants’ legal bills, and charged that their “clear motivation” was “to inflate the number of plaintiffs and overwhelm the defendants and the judicial system.”

There has been very little coverage of this story. The coverage includes a lead editorial in the Wall Street Journal two weeks after the fact, a very good article in the Houston Chronicle, an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and stories in several small Texas papers.

But this is a national story.  Don’t forget that a prominent trial lawyer, former Senator John Edwards, almost became Vice-President of the United States. What does he think of the verdict in Texas? If the media are interested, Edwards can be reached in his home state of North Carolina, where he has emerged as the director of the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity. Before taking up the cause of eliminating poverty, he made tens of millions of dollars as a trial lawyer. Some of that money was made from legal cases against doctors and hospitals, blaming them for cases of cerebral palsy among children, even though critics said that he relied on “junk science” in some of those suits.

Edwards is convinced that his record as a trial lawyer will not hurt his chances for future political office. He is widely regarded as a possible Democratic Party presidential candidate in 2008.  If that happens, the media will do their best to put his record-and the record of other trial lawyers-behind him.




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