The Shyster Files – Racketeering in Silicosis Litigation

David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz trace the silicosis compensation issues back to debates at the 1935 National Silicosis Conference, where representatives of labor and management squared off on the appropriate criteria for compensation.

David Rosner & Gerald Markowitz, Deadly Dust: Silicosis and the On-Going Struggle to Protect Workers’ Health at 110-15 (Ann Arbor 2006). Labor’s representative argued that silicosis should be defined by inhaling silica dust, which would have made every case of respiratory disease compensable. A lawyer who represented industry, Alfred C. Hirth, argued that compensation should be tied to disability.

Although Hirth acknowledged that silicosis was an employer problem[1], Rosner and Markowitz give a typically uncharitable assessment of Hirth’s ideas, even though the labor view that any silica inhalation constituted silicosis was demonstrably wrong at the time, and more so today. The authors quote Hirth as decrying the “[i]gnorance and sensational journalism” that has given rise to the then “the popular belief … that to inhale silica is to have silicosis.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

Rosner and Markowitz then hone in on one sentence in Hirth’s presentation, where he criticizes the:

“shyster lawyer and quack doctor, who have been with the United States always, but whom we hope we may someday exterminate.”

Deadly Dust at 113. Here they launch the charge that Hirth was an anti-semite because he was against shysters and quacks, and even hoped, not unreasonably, that someday we might be rid of them.  The historians urge that we:

“Note the anti-Semitism implied by the use of shyster and the call for extermination, which echoed the views of the Nazi and the anti-Semites during the 1930s.”

Id. at 113n.19. Really?

Now when I first read this passage in Deadly Dust, I was puzzled. My grandmother, a sweet, charming Jewish lady, who could curse in several languages, including Yiddish, would regularly rant about the shysters about in the world. As far as I can recall, her usage was non-denominational, non-racial, non-ethnic. It was an equal opportunity epithet. So I decided to dig a little deeper into the alleged “implication” seen by Markowitz and Rosner. Everything I could find pointed to both Jewish hypersensitivity and linguistic ignorance in the authors of the Deadly Dust.

Fanciful Etymology

Here is what the venerable Oxford English Dictionary has to say about shyster:

shyster slang. [Of obscure origin. It might be f. shy a. (sense 7, disreputable) + -ster; but this sense of the adj. is app. not current in the U.S.]

1. A lawyer who practises in an unprofessional or tricky manner; especially, one who haunts the prisons and lower courts to prey on petty criminals; hence, any one who conducts his business in a tricky manner.”

Nothing there to support the authors’ character assassination, but perhaps the English are just too polite? Here is the earthier, more down-to-Earth, American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed. 2000):

“shyster.  NOUN: Slang An unethical, unscrupulous practitioner, especially of law.

ETYMOLOGY: Probably alteration of German Scheisser, son of a bitch, bastard, from scheissen, to defecate … .”

Now we are getting to fundamentals. The Merriam Webster dictionary is in line with the defecator, which accords with my sense of lawyers who file fraudulent lawsuits:

a person who is professionally unscrupulous especially in the practice of law or politics :  pettifogger.  Origin of SHYSTER: probably from German Scheisser, literally, defecator.  First Known Use: 1844”

The less venerable, crowd-sourced Wikipedia notes that

“Various false etymologies have suggested an anti-Semitic origin, but there is no proof for that.[3]

Wikipedia entry for “shyster” (citing Michael Quinion “Shyster” World Wide Words (19 May 2007).

“Shysters” in Court

My view of the usage and etymology of shyster would appear to have the highest judicial authority. When some puglistic contracts turned puglistic, Lennox Lewis sued Don King in cases that spanned the Atlantic Ocean. At some point, King, with his gloves off and his mouth open, called Judd Berstein, Lewis’s attorney, a “shyster lawyer.” Berstein claimed that these were fighting words, or at least suing words, but the House of Lords disagreed. Lennox Lewis v Don King, [2004] EWCA Civ1329 (House of Lords, Supreme Court of Judicature).

Burstein’s claim, in his action for libel, turned on the assertion that calling a Jewish lawyer a “shyster lawyer” was anti-semitic (and defamatory). The appellate court (Lord Chief Justice Mummery and the eponymously named Lord Justice Laws) noted, with apparent approval, that the court below had diligently searched but failed to find any support for Burstein’s claim:

“It seems clear from a web search of 900 dictionaries (including specifically American ones) that there is no support for the word ‘shyster’ having any anti-semitic connotations.”

Id. at para. 18.

Shysters to the Right of Me; Shysters to the Left

In playing the “shyster” card, Rosner and Markowitz protest too much. They are so intent upon painting industry as unreasonable, that they overlook that the litigious behavior of the shyster lawyers in the 1930s embarrassed labor. There were, to be sure, real cases of silicosis, with real impairment, and real disability, even if the diagnostic criteria and classification of silicosis were in flux. Liability was contested in many of the “real cases,” which made administrative compensation boards such as workman’s compensation courts more attractive to many in labor unions than were litigation solutions. Here is what one labor union publication of the time had to say about the explosion of silicosis litigation in the 1930s:

“It is estimated that today in the United States there are approximately $500,000,000 in damage suits pending against employers. Many of these are legitimate, many admittedly racketeering. But just as medical research has demonstrated that one disease can be cured by the injection of another into the system, so in the end this regretable [sic] racketeering in damage suits — this ambulance chasing and canvassing of hospital beds by shyster lawyers and quack doctors — may prove to be the beneficent agent that shall cure big business of the greed and insensitiveness that places profits above human lives.”

“Silicosis Prevention” 72 Internat’l Molders’ J. 1 (July 1936) (emphasis added) (republished from the American Federationist (June 1936)).

So everyone agreed that there were shysters out in the land, and in court. The difference between labor and management is that labor wanted to use the shysters and fraudulent lawsuits in the hope that they would pressure industry into providing safer workplaces. And industry somehow objected to being besmirched by the shysters.


[1] See Alfred C. Hirth, Silicosis as an Employer Problem (1935).


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