Legal Remedies for Suspect Medical Science in Products Cases – Part One

Expert witness opinions about the nature and cause of plaintiffs’ medical conditions, are the linchpin of mass tort cases involving claims of bodily injury from allegedly harmful products.  The quality of these expert witness opinions has long been the subject of debate, but the explosion of products liability cases has brought increasing scrutiny, especially in cases involving asbestos, silica, and pharmaceutical claims.[1]

Courts, Congress, and commentators have raised concerns about the scientific and medical validity of the opinions offered in support of certain product liability claims, whether certain of the individuals who offer such opinions have a proper degree of independence from the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, and whether there is any way to address these questions apart from a rejection of the individual claims in which the bogus opinions are offered.  Famously, Judge Janis Jack of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas addressed these issues in a lengthy decision in which she excoriated physicians, medical screeners, and plaintiffs’ lawyers who she concluded had transgressed basic ground rules of medical and legal propriety in connection with silicosis claims.[2]

The stakes generated by the availability of these medical/technical opinions are especially high in mass torts that involve medical assessments of thousands of claimants.  The pendency of asbestos claims has driven well over 100 companies into bankruptcy, and with that example, any industry facing a substantial wave of repetitive liability claims must be concerned about how to respond to what it believes are false or unfounded claims. Clients ask whether there are remedies for the promotion of false, fraudulent, or just inadequate medical science under the banner of seeking compensation in products liability cases. The answers remain less than clear.

Some Past Attempts to Remedy the Harm from Dubious Science in Products Cases

GAF’s Litigation against the Asbestos Lawsuit Industry

On January 10, 2001, G-I Holdings Inc., the successor to GAF Corporation (“GAF”), filed suit against a group of asbestos personal injury lawyers who it alleged had “orchestrated a scheme to inundate the judicial system with hundreds of thousands of asbestos cases without regard to their merit.”[3] Among the allegations were claims that the plaintiffs’ firms had “suborned perjury and fabricated evidence” and “induced expert witnesses to provide false and misleading testimony, all for the purpose of extracting unwarranted and inflated settlements, judgments and, correspondingly, attorneys’ fees, from GAF and other asbestos defendants.”  The complaint alleged that, in 1978, a group of

“approximately 125 plaintiffs’ asbestos contingency fee attorneys banded together to form and fund the Asbestos Litigation Group (“ALG”) in order to further their scheme of promoting asbestos litigation.”  GAF asserted that “acting jointly through the ALG, and through less formal asbestos-related organizations, defendants, upon information and belief, solicited tens of thousands of asbestos claimants and sued manufacturers without regard for, or in conscious disregard of, the merits of their claims against particular individual defendants such as GAF. . . . .pursuant to agreements with each network [of local counsel] member, a share of the fees . . . .is typically channeled back to the referring ALG member, and ultimately to the ALG, to be invested  in future claimant solicitations, including mailed advertisements in newsletters.  This has resulted in the filing of further claims, thereby continuing the scheme, and increasing the network, which spirals ever larger.”

GAF’s complaint specifically included claims relating to the alleged “fabricat[ion]” of “medical evidence.”  In this regard, GAF alleged, upon information and belief, that the plaintiffs’ lawyers had:[4]

  1. . . . .induced medical “experts” to testify falsely. As set forth in the “Toxic Justice” report, [the plaintiffs’ law firm] paid off what one of the firm’s paralegals described as “whore docs” i.e., doctors who for money eagerly attributed virtually any lung abnormality to asbestos exposure, regardless of what medical evidence actually showed.

And GAF complained that:

  1. . . . . these practices induced false and misleading testimony to be given by expert witnesses in support of claims brought against GAF and others, which resulted in GAF’s payment of inflated verdicts and settlements in a number of cases.

While much of GAF’s complaint did not focus specifically on the quality of the medical evidence, it is nonetheless instructive as an overall perspective on the factual framework within which these medical issues arise. GAF’s complaint understandably focused heavily on defendant’s Baron & Budd’s memorandum, entitled “Preparing for Your Deposition.”  GAF alleged that this

“memorandum, apparently created for use in preparing asbestos plaintiffs for deposition, improperly exhorts witnesses to testify in a pre-scripted manner, regardless of the truth.”

For particularity’s sake, GAF alleged, with extensive quotations from the Baron & Budd memorandum, that the memorandum told

“witnesses to identify only those products listed on the Work History Sheets prepared by Baron & Budd (lest the witness identify the product of a bankrupt entity from whom no damages or attorneys’ fees could be collected). . . .and to memorize the product names provided by Baron & Budd on the “Work History Sheets” and to testify that they actually saw those names on containers where they worked. . . .”[5]

The complaint alleges that the memorandum gave further improper instructions to plaintiffs about their testimony, including directions to omit any mention of exposures resulting “from the replacement or removal of old product that could not be identified by brand”; making false claims of “equal exposure to all products”; denying “that they ever saw any warnings or had knowledge concerning the harmful effects of asbestos.”

GAF alleged a variety of other concerted actions to file false asbestos claims.  These activities allegedly included withholding “from production in discovery death certificates for asbestos claimants that did not support the conclusion that the individual had died as a result of an asbestos-related disease”; conducting “periodic in-house training sessions to teach other attorneys and/or paralegals how to prepare all asbestos claimants to give scripted testimony in their depositions. . . . .without regard for whether or not the testimony was true”; participating in a scheme to falsify Court records to indicate that complaints were filed before the running of the statute of limitations; and submitting affidavits containing false information concerning the identity of products.

The complaint also contained a number of allegations to the effect that the defendant law firms had “used their considerable resources and power in an attempt to intimidate and deter GAF (and others) from exercising their constitutionally protected rights to petition Congress in support of legislation that would establish a fair and efficient administrative facility for resolving legitimate asbestos claims without the years of delay and wasteful fees and transaction costs that are characteristic of the current system.  Defendants have waged a full-scale, multi-front war against those seeking passage of a Congressional bill entitled the “Fairness in Asbestos Compensation Act.”

The suit pled claims under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”),[6] and under numerous other headings of state, and federal, law.[7]  The lawsuit industry defendants brought a series of motions to dismiss on the pleadings, with successive amended complaints filed, until there was nothing left of GAF’s complaint.[8]  For example, part of the case – relating to the Baron & Budd memorandum discussed above — pleaded fraud based on information and belief.  Judge Sweet dismissed that aspect of the fraud claims on the grounds that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b) requires that allegations of fraud be pleaded with specificity and that the plaintiff must provide a statement of facts upon which the belief of the existence of fraud is founded.  Judge Sweet concluded that GAF had repeatedly failed to meet this requirement.

Federal and State Prosecutions against Physicians and Screening Companies

After Judge Jack’s exposé of fraudulent and false diagnoses in the silicosis MDL, various news media reported that the United States Attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York was investigating possible criminal charges against the physicians and lawyers who orchestrated the screenings. Historically, there has been little interest among prosecutors in the questionable activities of screening physicians, with some notable exceptions.  In 1990, the United States Attorney’s office, for the Eastern District of Philadelphia, filed a civil RICO against several Philadelphia-area physicians for their role in submitting false and fraudulent Medicare claims.[9]  As pleaded by the government, the fraudulent scheme consisted of soliciting industrial workers for “free” lung screening, at the behest of lawyer clients, for asbestos-related diseases.  The physicians conducted radiologic and pulmonary function examinations, and submitted requests to Medicare for reimbursement of inflated costs for these services and falsely stated that the services were reasonably medically necessary because of diagnoses of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.[10]  This matter appears to have been resolved before trial, although the docket fails to reveal the exact nature of the resolution.

The false claim problem continues, although the silicosis screenings have abated, and most asbestos plaintiffs’ lawyers have shifted their efforts to the high-yield mesothelioma and lung cancer cases, for which diagnostic accuracy is not typically the dominant issue. Some within the lawsuit industry appear to continue the practice of referring clients to friendly physicians for an examination that will form the basis of a lawsuit, with the consulting physician in turn filing a request for reimbursement with the claimant’s private or public health insurer.  For most insurers, such a claim for reimbursement impliedly represents that the services were reasonably medically necessary, and sometimes the services may well be necessary.  At other times, the services are redundant and provided only for purposes of preparing the examining physician to serve as an expert witness.  In a case I tried early in my career, the testifying expert witness first saw the plaintiff two weeks before trial for no purpose other than to serve as a witness.  The plaintiff had a regular treating physician, and had been examined by another testifying witness, but the plaintiff’s lawyer wanted to have a second testifying witness for trial.  The “Saturday-night” expert witness conducted his examination, and then requested reimbursement for the examination from the plaintiff’s health insurer, and indicated the name of the plaintiff’s counsel as the “referring physician” on the insurance forms.  The trial judge remarkably would not permit cross-examination of the testifying expert witness on the fraud, and suggested that such cross-examination was prohibited by the collateral source rule!  The health insurance industry will occasionally act vigilantly to enforce a lien against a tort recovery, but there has been little evidence of civil or criminal litigation arising from the practice of billing insurers for examinations by physicians who are essentially expert witnesses and not treating physicians.

The Pennsylvania Silicosis Litigation Cock Up

In February 2002, Texas invaded Pennsylvania. No conventional weapons were fired. The Texans took up positions in mobile vans in motel parking lots across eastern Pennsylvania. Without prescriptions, physicians’ orders, or regulatory approval, the Texans directed unlawful X-ray radiation at Pennsylvania workers in the hopes of creating evidence to be used in lawsuits for silicosis. To help establish their litigation beachhead, the Texans hired local mercenaries – a New Jersey company in the business of providing mobile X-ray screenings. Dozens of silicosis lawsuits were created and filed in Philadelphia as a result of the invasion.

On January 25, 2007, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, through its Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), responded by fining the New Jersey company, MOST Health Services, Inc. The DEP found that MOST violated Pennsylvania law by conducting X-ray screenings without physician or regulatory approval. For having unlawfully exposed 161 persons to ionizing radiation, DEP assessed a civil penalty of $80,500.00, against MOST. The DEP did not charge the plaintiffs’ lawyers with any violation of Commonwealth regulations.

MOST’s participation in unlawful litigation screenings was not a momentary lapse in judgment. Back in 2000, defense counsel in asbestos cases compelled the testimony of MOST principal Kenneth Warner, who acknowledged then that MOST had not been in the practice of complying with screening regulations. Mr. Warner, however, claimed that the company was in the process of filing appropriate applications to comply.

Workers were invited to the February 2002 MOST screenings by their unions, but the invitation letters were written by Texas lawyers. To participate in the screenings, the workers had to sign a retainer agreement to engage the Texas-based law firm. The workers were told that “legal ethics” required that they hire the sponsoring law firm to represent them before “the attorneys can provide [them] with medical tests.”

Of course, the law in no state permits attorneys to provide medical tests, and especially not X-rays. DEP, like most other states’ regulatory agencies, has promulgated comprehensive regulations that govern virtually every aspect of the use of medical radiation. In Pennsylvania, anyone proposing a “healing arts screening” with X-rays must submit, in advance, a comprehensive, written proposal with details of the proposed screening, the description of the population to be examined, the qualifications of the radiation technician and operator, the quality control to be used, the qualifications of the supervising physician, and the identity and qualifications of the physician who will interpret the radiographs.

The MOST screenings, commissioned by the Texas lawyers, were never authorized by the DEP. No physician was present on site. None of the workers presented prescriptions or physicians’ orders before being unlawfully exposed to radiation. The identity of the physician slated to receive the chest radiographs was never disclosed to DEP.

Ultimately, the films created by MOST were sent to a West Virginia physician, well known and well compensated in dust-disease litigation. This off-site physician diagnosed virtually all of the workers with either asbestosis or silicosis, and a majority of litigants with both asbestosis and silicosis, although he never examined the workers, never interviewed them, and never reviewed their medical records.

In December 2005, the defendants in the silicosis cases that arose from the MOST screenings moved to dismiss on grounds that the claims were the direct result of unlawful activities that violated Pennsylvania public policy. The trial court denied the motion without opinion. Despite the obvious conspiracy between the plaintiffs’ lawyers and MOST to violate Pennsylvania health regulations, no disciplinary actions were brought against the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the cases.

The Pennsylvania fine against MOST seems to have been an exceptional finding. Although the predatory screening practices decried in federal Judge Janis Graham Jack’s now judicial opinion, In re Silica Products Liability Litigation, no other states to my knowledge have taken action against the conspiracies among lawyers, physicians, and mobile screening companies, to violate state health regulations. These conspiracies thrived for some time, in part because of the entrepreneurial enthusiasm of the conspirators, and the failure of courts, bar associations, adversary counsel, state and federal regulators, and medical societies to condemn the screening practices. In the context of silicosis litigation, the “red flags of fraud,” go beyond the manufacturing of diagnoses for money; they mark as dubious the entire enterprise of suing sand suppliers for failure to warn about hazards that were well known to government, industry, labor, and academia from the 1930s, forward.

[1]  The following commentary flows from a joint project that the late R. Nicholas (Nick) Gimbel and I worked on some years ago. Nick’s illness and tragic death prevented us from publishing this work, but I believe it still bears some sort of public airing. Nick Gimbel and I presented some of this commentary in a paper, “Legal Remedies to Address Suspect Medical Science in Product Liability Cases,” for Mealey’s Advanced Insurance Coverage Conference, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Jan. 23, 2006).

[2]  In re Silica Products Liability Litigation, 398 F.Supp. 2d 563 (S.D.Tex. 2005) (“In re Silica”). Although Judge Jack’s deconstruction of the silicosis “epidemic” is famous among defense counsel, Her Honor’s work has been met with willful ignorance by the lawsuit industry. See, e.g., David Michaels, “Deadly Dust,” chap. 8, in The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception (2020) (exhibiting amnesia about one of the largest litigation frauds in the 21st century, so far.)

[3]  For a more complete, scholarly exposition of this case, see Lester Brickman, “Civil RICO: An Effective Deterrent to Fraudulent Asbestos Litigation?” 40 Cardozo L. Rev. 2301, 2344-2402 (2019).

[4]  Fourth Amended Complaint dated August 19, 2002.

[5]  Fourth Amended Complaint, ¶ 61.

[6]   18 U.S.C. § 1961, et seq.

[7]  Other claims in the GAF complaint asserted tortious interference with contract and economic advantage, breach of contract, common law fraud and falsification of documents.  Claims that were dismissed include malicious interference with GAF’s right to petition Congress, violation of 15 U.S.C. § 1 (antitrust laws) and fraudulent inducement.

[8]  See G-I Holdings, Inc. v. Baron & Budd, No. 01-Civ. 0216, 2005 WL 1653623 (S.D.N.Y.); G-I Holdings, Inc. v. Baron & Budd, No. 01-Civ. 0216, 2004 WL 638141 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 30, 2004);  G-I Holdings, Inc. v. Baron & Budd, 2004 WL 540456 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 17, 2004); G-I Holdings, Inc. v. Baron & Budd, 2004 WL 374450 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 27, 2004); G-I Holdings, Inc. v. Baron & Budd, 218 F.R.D. 409 (S.D.N.Y. 2003); G-I Holdings, Inc. v. Baron & Budd, 213 F.R.D. 146 (S.D.N.Y. 2003); G-I Holdings, Inc. v. Baron & Budd, 01 Civ. 0216, 2002 WL 31251702 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 8, 2002); G-I Holdings, Inc. v. Baron & Budd, 238 F.Supp.2d 521 (S.D.N.Y. 2002); and G-I Holdings, Inc. v. Baron & Budd, 179 F.Supp.2d 233 (S.D.N.Y. 2001).

[9]  U.S. v. MRS Diagnostics, Inc., Civil Action No. 90-3517 (E.D.Pa. May 23, 1990), Complaint.

[10]  Id. at Complaint para. 1(a)-(i).

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