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

The Federal Multi-District Silicosis Proceedings Before Judge Janis Jack

One of the most significant developments in the role of scientific and medical evidence gatekeeping under Rule 702, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Daubert,[1] was the 2005 opinion of Judge Janis Graham Jack in the multi-district silicosis litigation.[2] Judge Jack’s lengthy opinion addresses a variety of procedural issues, including subject matter jurisdiction over some of the cases, but Her Honor’s focus was “whether the doctors who diagnosed Plaintiffs with silicosis employed a sufficiently reliable methodology for their testimony to be admissible” and “whether Plaintiffs’ counsel should be sanctioned for submitting unreliable diagnoses and failing to fully comply with discovery orders.”  Judge Jack held that thousands of diagnoses of silicosis were radically flawed and could not be treated as proper science or medicine, and she imposed sanctions against plaintiffs’ lawyers in the cases over which she had subject matter jurisdiction.

In summary, Judge Jack held that to pass the minimum reliability analysis under Daubert, a diagnosis of silicosis requires:

“(1) an adequate exposure to silica dust with an appropriate latency period,

(2) radiographic evidence of silicosis, and

(3) the absence of any good reason to believe that the radiographic findings are the result of some other condition (i.e., a differential diagnosis).

* * * * *

As discussed above, these three criteria are universally accepted, as demonstrated by learned treatises and experts in the field.  It is the implementation of these criteria in these cases which ranged from questionable to abysmal.”[3]

With respect to the first criterion, evidence of “adequate exposure to silica dust with an appropriate latency period,” the court concluded that “[t]he ‘exposure histories’ (or ‘work histories’) were virtually always taken by people with no medical training, who had significant financial incentives to find someone positive for exposure to silica (or asbestos, depending on which type of suit the employing law firm was seeking to file).”[4]  The court went on to state that:

“[t]hese ‘histories’ were devoid of meaningful details, such as the duration and intensity of exposure, which are critical to determining whether someone has sufficient exposure, dosage and latency to support a reliable diagnosis.”[5]

Judge Jack, who had been a registered nurse before going to law school and becoming a lawyer, was clearly concerned that the medical “histories were taken by receptionists [at medical screening companies allied with plaintiffs’ counsel] with no medical training.”[6]  The head of one of the screening companies “testified that the doctors who worked for his screening company simply relied upon the abbreviated work histories that [the screening company] supplied them.”[7]  As a former nurse, Judge Jack was probably more than a little put off by the screening company executive’s explanation that “to ask the doctor to take a work history in our field would be like asking [the defense attorney questioning him] to wash my car.  I mean it’s . . . very beneath him.”[8]  Judge Jack rejected this approach entirely, and found that legitimate doctors would find it necessary to take the occupational history themselves:

“This type of thorough, detailed, physician-guided work/exposure history is the kind of history that experts in the field of occupational medicine insist upon when diagnosing silicosis.  It is therefore the type of history required by the Federal Rules for these diagnoses to be admissible.  Cf. Allen v. Pennsylvania Eng’g Corp., 102 F.3d 194, 198 (5th Cir. 1996)… .”[9]

The second required predicate for an admissible diagnosis of silicosis was an appropriate radiographic finding – a so-called “B-read,” which is simply the interpretation of a physician, who has passed a certifying proficiency examination given by the National Institute of Occupational Health, for evaluating chest films for pneumoconiosis, using a standardized scale and notations.  Judge Jack discerned, contrary to the approach taken by some of the plaintiffs’ lawyers and certain doctors, that a positive B-read was not “a talisman that would dispel any doubts about the diagnoses as a whole.”[10]  A positive B-read simply is not sufficient alone to support a silicosis diagnosis.

Judge Jack noted that a consensus report of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine rejected the use of a B-read alone as sufficient to support a diagnosis of pneumoconiosis, and emphasized the views of one testifying physician that the “ILO guidelines, by their express terms, [were] ‘not supposed to be used for designation of disease or determining compensation.’ ”[11] But even apart from rejecting the concept that a positive B-read was by itself a sufficient basis for a diagnosis of silicosis, Judge Jack fundamentally criticized the manner in which the X-rays at issue were conducted.

The B-reader system was not originally established for use in litigation, but as part of a coal workers’ surveillance program to determine whether a worker should be transferred to a low-dust environment.  And under this surveillance program, the worker is not transferred until at least two B-readers agree on a positive read.  But in most of these MDL cases, a single positive B-read was deemed sufficient by plaintiffs’ hired witnesses to establish a diagnosis of silicosis.[12]

Judge Jack also stressed that the methodology followed by the B-readers did “not correspond to the ILO’s recommended methodology for applying the ILO classification system, because according to ILO guidelines:

“When classifying radiographs for epidemiological purposes it is essential that the reader does not consider any information about the individuals concerned other than the radiographs themselves.  Awareness of supplementary details specific to the individuals themselves can introduce bias into the results.”[13]

In the cases before her, Judge Jack found that it was obvious that the so-called B-reader was “acutely aware of the precise disease he is supposed to be finding on the X-rays.  In these cases, the doctors repeatedly testified that they were told to look for silicosis, and the doctors did as they were told.”[14] Business pressures had obviously corrupted the diagnostic process, and resulted in improbable consistency in finding silicosis in whomever plaintiffs’ lawyers signed up for litigation.

This corrupt consistency, and obediency to retaining plaintiffs’ counsel, which led to Judge Jack’s approval of the testimony from the hearings that advanced the notion that some degree of blinding is needed to assure the integrity of the diagnostic process. When the radiographic films come from a mass screening, the readers should be confronted with films known to be negative through multiple, independent evaluations.

The third criterion given by Judge Jack for an admissible diagnosis of silicosis, was a proper “differential diagnosis,” which consisted of a showing of “the absence of any good reason to believe that the positive radiographic findings are the result of some other condition.”[15]

One of the physicians whose diagnoses were challenged claimed that this ruling out of other explanations for a radiographic pattern was not required for diagnosing silicosis, but Judge Jack found that this self-serving opinion was contradicted by the major textbooks in the field, by the physicians who showed up to testify in the hearings, and even by the plaintiffs’ own briefs. Judge Jack adverted to the language of Daubert to note that one factor to be considered in the “reliability” of an expert witness’s opinion was its general acceptance in the relevant scientific community.[16] The self-validating views of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses simply were not generally accepted in any legitimate segment of the medical profession. And thus Judge Jack found that, in the MDL cases, the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ failure to exclude other alternative causes of the radiographic findings clearly was not generally accepted in the field of occupational medicine, and that their opinions did not satisfy the requirements of Rule 702.[17] A proper differential diagnosis required what was lacking across the board in the cases, namely “a thorough occupational/exposure history and medical history,” as well as a social history that included travel destinations.[18]

In addition to Judge Jack’s carefully reasoned conclusions about the diagnostic “process” used by the challenged expert witnesses, Her Honor was presented with additional evidence of the egregious infirmity of the challenged diagnoses:

– The willingness of one doctor to render opinions on 1,239 plaintiffs in the MDL when he was admittedly not a qualified B-reader, not an expert in silicosis treatment, not qualified to read X-rays or CT scans, did no physical examinations, simply took whatever histories had been given to him by the plaintiffs’ lawyers, and spent a negligible amount of time reviewing each of the plaintiffs’ files.  The doctor testified that his practice consists almost entirely of litigation consulting and that he charges $600 per hour for that work.

– Another doctor’s abandonment of about 3,700 diagnoses under the scrutiny generated by the hearings before Judge Jack.

– The fact that 1,587 claimants who had previously been listed as having asbestosis, with no reference to silica disease, had their diagnoses changed to silicosis, with no reference to asbestos disease.  These diagnoses were produced rapidly and in large groups.

– The fact that a purported epidemic of silicosis apparently began abruptly in early 2001, when plaintiffs’ lawyers turned their attention to this alternative to asbestos litigation, and the fact that many of the silicosis claimants were recycled asbestosis clients of the plaintiffs’ firms.

The specific facts before Judge Jack may seem extreme, but the same or similar abuses have been commonplace in asbestos litigation for a long time before they were outed in the silicosis MDL.  The crucial holdings of In re Silica go beyond the serious depravity of the expert witnesses involved.

Raymark v. Stempel

In 1990, one now defunct asbestos product manufacturer, Raymark Industries, Inc. (“Raymark”), deluged with dubious lawsuits, brought RICO and other claims against medical professionals, lawyers, and claimants.[19]  Raymark based its allegations on deceptions that led it to settle an asbestos personal injury class action.

In ruling upon defendants’ motions to dismiss, the district court found that defendant medical screeners had disregarded standards set by the American Thoracic Society and reported that workers had asbestos-related “injuries” even thought the radiographic interpretations had no clinical significance.  The court stated that the screening program had produced a “steady flow of faulty claims” and was a “fraud on the court.”[20]  The court thus refused to dismiss Raymark’s claims based on common law fraud and RICO violations.[21]

Owens Corning Fiberglass Bankruptcy Proceedings

The efforts to curtail frivolous asbestos claims also include the motion by Credit Suisse in the Owens Corning bankruptcy for leave to file an adversary complaint against certain physicians who reported chest radiographs as positive for asbestos-related diseases.  This motion was granted conditionally on the agreement of Credit Suisse to indemnify Owens Corning for any potential ensuing liability, but then was withdrawn when Credit Suisse declined to provide such assurance.

[1]  Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993).

[2]  In re Silica Products Liab.Litig., 398 F.Supp. 2d 563 (S.D.Tex. 2005) (“In re Silica”).

[3]  In re Silica. at 622 (internal citations and footnote omitted).

[4]  In re Silica, at 622 -23.

[5]  Id.

[6]  Id.

[7]  Id.

[8]  Id.

[9]  In re Silica, at 623-34.

[10]  In re Silica, at 625 – 26.

[11]  Id. at 626 – 27 (internal quotes omitted).

[12]  Id. at 626.

[13]  Id.

[14]  Id. at 627.

[15]  Id. at 629.

[16]  Id. at 629 – 30 (citing Daubert, 509 U.S. at 593-94; Pipitone v. Biomatrix, Inc., 288 F.3d 239, 246 (5th Cir. 2002) (upholding admissibility under Rule 702 when a physician’s “elimination of various alternative causes. . . .were [sic] based on generally accepted diagnostic principles related to these conditions”).

[17]  Id. at 629 – 30.

[18]  Id. at 630 – 32 (coccidioidomycosis is endemic to some parts of the United States and resembles silicosis radiographically).

[19]  Raymark Indus., Inc. v. Stemple, 1990 WL 72588 (D. Kan., May 30, 1990).

[20]  1990 WL 72588 at *2, *8, *18, *22.

[21] See Nathan Schachtman, “Medico-Legal Issues in Occupational Lung Disease Litigation,” 27 Sem. Roentgenology 140 (1992) (discussing Semple in greater detail). It is unclear how Stemple was ultimately resolved.  The court’s docket does not indicate whether this case was dismissed, voluntarily, involuntarily, as a result of settlement, or otherwise.  The clerk of the court reported that this case was sealed under court order.

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