History of Silicosis Litigation

“Now, Silicosis, you’re a dirty robber and a thief;
Yes, silicosis, you’re a dirty robber and a thief;
Robbed me of my right to live,
and all you brought poor me is grief.
I was there diggin’ that tunnel for just six bits a day;
I was diggin’ that tunnel for just six bits a day;
Didn’t know I was diggin’ my own grave,
Silicosis was eatin’ my lungs away.”

Josh White, “Silicosis Is Killin’ Me (Silicosis Blues)” (1936)

Recently, David Rosner, labor historian, social justice warrior, and expert witness for the litigation industry, gave the Fielding H. Garrison Lecture, in which he argued for the importance of the work that he and his comrade-in-arms, Gerald Markowitz, have done as historian expert witnesses in tort cases.1 Although I am of course grateful for the shout out that Professor Rosner gives me,2 I am still obligated to call him on the short-comings of his account of silicosis litigation.3 Under the rubric of “the contentious struggle to define disease,” Rosner presents a tendentious account of silicosis litigation, which is highly misleading, for what it says, and in particular, for it omits.

For Rosner’s self-congratulatory view of his own role in silicosis litigation to make sense, we must imagine a counterfactual world that is the center piece of his historical narrative in which silicosis remains the scourge of the American worker, and manufacturing industry is engaged in a perpetual cover up.

Rosner’s fabulistic account of silicosis litigation and his role in it falls apart under even mild scrutiny. The hazards of silica exposure were known to Josh White and the entire country in 1936. Some silicosis litigation arose in the 1930s against employers, but plaintiffs were clearly hampered by tort doctrines of assumption of risk, contributory negligence, the fellow-servant rule. To my knowledge, there were no litigation claims against remote suppliers of silica before the late 1970s, when courts started to experiment with hyperstrict liability rules.

Eventually, the litigation industry, buoyed by its successes against asbestos-product manufacturers turned their attention to silica sand suppliers to foundries and other industrial users. Liability claims against remote suppliers of a natural raw material such as silica sand, however, made no sense in terms of the rationales of tort law. There was no disparity of information between customer and supplier; the customer, plaintiffs’ employer was not only the cheapest and most efficient cost and risk avoider, the employer was the only party that could control the risk. Workers and their unions were well aware of the hazards of working in uncontrolled silica-laden workplaces.

Although employer compliance with safety and health regulations for silica exposure has never been perfect, the problem of rampant acute silicosis, such as what afflicted the tunnel workers memorialized by Josh White, is a thing of the past in the United States. The control of silica exposures and the elimination of silicosis are rightly claimed to be one of the great public health achievements of the 20th century. See Centers Disease Control, “Ten Great Public Health Achievements — United States, 1900-1999,” 48 Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report 241 (April 02, 1999).

Interestingly, after World War II, silicosis has been a much greater problem in the communist countries, such as China, the countries that made up the Soviet Union. Rosner and Markowitz, however, like the leftist intellectuals of the 1950s who could not bring themselves to criticize Stalin, seem blind to the sorry state of workplace safety in communist countries. Their blindness vitiates their historical project, which attempts to reduce occupational diseases and other workplace hazards to the excesses of corporate capitalism. A fair comparison with non-capitalist systems would reveal that silicosis results from many motives and conditions, including inattention, apathy, carelessness, concern with productivity, party goals, and labor-management rivalries. In the case of silicosis, ignorance of the hazards of silica is the least likely explanation for silicosis cases arising out of workplace exposures after the mid-1930s.

In the United States, silicosis litigation has been infused with fraud and deception, not by the defendants, but by the litigation industry that creates lawsuits. Absent from Rosner’s historical narratives is any mention of the frauds that have led to dismissals of thousands of cases, and the professional defrocking of any number of physician witnesses.  In re Silica Products Liab. Litig., MDL No. 1553, 398 F.Supp. 2d 563 (S.D.Tex. 2005).

Nor does Rosner deign to discuss the ethical and legal breaches committed by the plaintiffs’ counsel in conducting radiographic screenings of workers, in the hopes of creating lawsuits. With the help of unscrupulous physicians, these screenings were unnaturally successful not only in detecting silicosis that did not exist, but in some cases, in transmuting real asbestosis into silicosis.4

Many silicosis cases in recent times were accompanied by more subtle frauds, which turned on the “failure-to-warn” rhetoric implicit in the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A. Consider the outbreak of silicosis litigation in western Pennsylvania, in the mid-1980s. Many of the men who claimed to have silicosis had significant silica exposure at the Bethlehem and U.S. Steel foundries in the Johnstown areas. Some of the claimants actually had simple silicosis, although discovery of these claimants’ workplace records revealed that they had been non-compliant with workplace safety rules.

The Johnstown, Cambria County, cases were not the result of unlawful medical screenings, paid for by plaintiffs’ lawyers and conducted by physicians of dubious integrity and medical acumen. Instead, the plaintiffs’ lawyers found their claimants as a result of the claimants’ having had previous workers’ compensation claims for silicosis, which resulted after the workers were diagnosed by employer medical screening programs.

Cambria County Courthouse in Ebensburg, PA (venue for an outbreak of silicosis litigation in the 1980s and early 1990s5)

The first of the foundrymen’s cases was set for trial in 1989, 30 years ago, in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. The silica cases were on the docket of the President Judge, the Hon. Joseph O’Kicki, who turned out to be less than honorable. Just before the first silica trial, Judge O’Kicki was arrested on charges of corruption, as well as lewdness (for calling in his female staff while lounging in chambers in his panties).

As a result of O’Kicki’s arrest, the only Cambria Country trial we saw in 1989 was the criminal trial of Judge O’Kicki, in Northampton County. In April 1989, a jury found O’Kicki guilty of bribery and corruption, although it acquitted him on charges of lewdness.6 Facing a sentence of over 25 years, and a second trial on additional charges, O’Kicki returned to the land of his forebears, Slovenia, where he lived out his days and contributed to the surplus population.7

Whatever schadenfreude experienced by the defendants in the Cambria County silicosis litigation was quickly dispelled by the assignment of the silica cases to the Hon. Eugene Creany, who proved to be an active partisan for the plaintiffs’ cause. Faced with a large backlog of cases created by the rapacious filings of the Pittsburgh plaintiffs’ lawfirms, and Judge O’Kicki’s furlough from judicial service, Judge Creany devised various abridgements of due process, the first of which was to consolidate cases. As a result, the first case up in 1990 was actually three individual cases “clustered” for a single jury trial: Harmotta, Phillips, and Peterson.8 To poke due process in both eyes, Judge Creany made sure that one of the “clustered” cases was a death case (Peterson).

Jury selection started in earnest on April 2, 1990, with opening statements set for April 4. In between, the defense made the first of its many motions for mistrial, when defense lawyers observed one of the plaintiffs, Mr. Phillips, having breakfast with some of the jurors in the courthouse cafeteria. Judge Creany did not seem to think that this pre-game confabulation was exceptional, and admonished the defense that folks in Cambria County are just friendly, but they are fair. Trial slogged on for four weeks, with new abridgments of due process almost every day, such as forcing defendants, with adverse interests and positions, into having one direct- and one cross-examination of each witness. The last motion for mistrial was provoked by Judge Creany’s walking into the jury room during its deliberations, to deliver doughnuts.

At the end of the day, in May 1990, the jury proved to be much fairer than the trial judge. Judge Creany instructed the jury that “silica was the defect,” and on other novel points of law. Led by its foreman, a union organizer for the United Mine Workers, the jury returned a defense verdict in the Peterson case, which involved a claim that Mr. Peterson’s heart attack death case was caused by his underlying silicosis. In the two living plaintiffs’ cases, the jury found that the men had knowingly assumed the risk of silicosis, but at the judge’s insistence, the jury proceeded to address defendants’ liability, and to assess damages, in the amount of $22,500, in the two cases.

Pennsylvania’s appellate courts took a dim view of plaintiffs’ efforts to hold remote silica suppliers responsible for silicosis arising out of employment by large, sophisticated steel manufacturers. The Superior Court, Pennsylvania’s intermediate appellate court, reversed and remanded both plaintiffs’ verdicts. In Mr. Harmotta’s case, the court held that his action was collaterally estopped by a previous workman’s compensation judge’s finding that he did not have silicosis. In Mr. Phillip’s case, the court addressed the ultimate issue, whether a remote supplier to a sophisticated intermediary can be liable for silicosis that resulted from the intermediary’s employment and use of the supplied raw material. In what was a typical factual scenario of supply of silica to foundry employers, the Superior Court held that there was no strict or negligence liability for the employees’ silicosis.9 The Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined to hear Harmotta’s appeal on collateral estoppels, but heard an appeal in Phillips’ case. The Supreme Court pulled back from the sophisticated intermediary rationale for reversal, and placed its holding instead on the obvious lack of proximate cause between the alleged failure to warn and the claimed harm, given the jury’s special finding of assumed risk.10

One of plaintiffs’ counsel’s principal arguments, aimed at the union organizer on the jury, was that even if a warning to the individual plaintiffs might not have changed their behavior, a warning to the union would have been effective. The case law involving claims against unions for failing to warn have largely exculpated unions and taken them out of the warning loop. Given this case law, plaintiffs’ argument was puzzling, but the puzzlement turned to outrage when we learned after the first trial that Judge Creany had been a union solicitor, in which role, he had regularly written to U.S. Steel in Johnstown, to notify the employer when one of the local union members had been diagnosed with silicosis.

The next natural step seemed to list Judge Creany as a percipient fact witness to the pervasive knowledge of silicosis among the workforce and especially among the union leadership. Judge Creany did not take kindly to being listed as a fact witness, or being identified in voire dire as a potential witness. Still, the big lie about failure to warn and worker and labor union ignorance had been uncovered. Judge Creany started to delegate trials to other judges in the courthouse and to bring judges in from neighboring counties. The defense went on win the next dozen or so cases, before the plaintiffs’ lawyers gave up on their misbegotten enterprise of trying to use Pennsylvania’s hyperstrict liability rules to make remote silica suppliers pay for the fault of workers and their employers.

You won’t find any mention of the Cambria County saga in Rosner or Markowitz’s glorified accounts of silicosis litigation. The widespread unlawful screenings, the “double dipping” by asbestos claimants seeking a second paycheck for fabricated silicosis, the manufactured diagnoses and product identification do not rent space in Rosner and Markowitz’s fantastical histories.


2 See, e.g., Nathan A. Schachtman, “On Deadly Dust and Histrionic Historians: Preliminary Thoughts on History and Historians as Expert Witnesses,” 2 Mealey’s Silica Litigation Report Silica 1, 2 (November 2003); Nathan Schachtman & John Ulizio, “Courting Clio:  Historians and Their Testimony in Products Liability Action,” in: Brian Dolan & Paul Blanc, eds., At Work in the World: Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on the History of Occupational and Environmental Health, Perspectives in Medical Humanities, University of California Medical Humanities Consortium, University of California Press (2012); Schachtman, “On Deadly Dust & Histrionic Historians 041904,”; How Testifying Historians Are Like Lawn-Mowing Dogs” (May 15, 2010)A Walk on the Wild Side (July 16, 2010); Counter Narratives for Hire (Dec. 13, 2010); Historians Noir (Nov. 18, 2014); Succès de scandale – With Thanks to Rosner & Markowitz” (Mar. 26, 2017). And of course, I have experienced some schadenfreude for when one of the Pink Panthers was excluded in a case in which he was disclosed as a testifying expert witness. Quester v. B.F. Goodrich Co., Case No. 03-509539, Court of Common Pleas for Cuyahoga Cty., Ohio, Order Sur Motion to Exclude Dr. Gerald Markowitz (Sweeney, J.).

3 “Trying Times” is the sixth Rosnowitz publication to point to me as a source of criticism of the Rosner-Markowitz radical leftist history of silicosis in the United States. See David Rosner, “Trying Times: The Courts, the Historian, and the Contentious Struggle to Define Disease,” 91 Bull. History Med. 473, 491-92 & n.32 (2017); Previously, Rosner and Markowitz have attempted to call me out in four published articles and one book. See D. Rosner & G. Markowitz, “The Trials and Tribulations of Two Historians:  Adjudicating Responsibility for Pollution and Personal Harm, 53 Medical History 271, 280-81 (2009); D. Rosner & G. Markowitz, “L’histoire au prétoire.  Deux historiens dans les procès des maladies professionnelles et environnementales,” 56 Revue  D’Histoire Moderne & Contemporaine 227, 238-39 (2009); David Rosner, “Trials and Tribulations:  What Happens When Historians Enter the Courtroom,” 72 Law & Contemporary Problems 137, 152 (2009); David Rosner & Gerald Markowitz, “The Historians of Industry” Academe (Nov. 2010); and Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution at 313-14 (U. Calif. rev. ed. 2013). 

4 Nathan A. Schachtman, “State Regulators Impose Sanction Unlawful Screenings 05-25-07,” Washington Legal Foundation Legal Opinion Letter, vol. 17, no. 13 (May 2007); “Silica Litigation – Screening, Scheming, and Suing,” Washington Legal Foundation Critical Legal Issues Working Paper (December 2005); Medico-Legal Issues in Occupational Lung Disease Litigation,” 27 Seminars in Roentgenology140 (1992).

5 by Publichall – own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

6 Assoc’d Press, “Pennsylvania County Judge Guilty of Corruption,” (April 18, 1989).

7 U.P.I., “Facing Prison, Convicted Judge Skips Bail,” (Mar. 8, 1993); “Judge O’kicki Declared Fugitive; May Be In Slovenia,” The Morning Call (April 20, 1993).

8 Harmotta v. Walter C. Best, Inc., Cambria Cty. Ct. C.P. No. 1986-128; Phillips v. Walter C. Best, Inc., Cambria Cty. Ct. C.P. No. 1987-434(b)(10); Peterson v. Walter C. Best, Inc., Cambria Cty. Ct. C.P. No. 1986-678.

9 Phillips v. A.P. Green Co., 428 Pa. Super. 167, 630 A.2d 874 (1993).

10 Phillips v. A-Best Products Co., 542 Pa. 124, 665 A.2d 1167 (1995).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments are closed.