"Lawyered up and hunkered down" is how the Wall Street Journal described Harrisburg radiologist Ray Harron when he and two other asbestos and silicosis diagnosing doctors took the 5th Amendment before a congressional committee last week.
"The dumbstruck docs were a lot more energetic when it came to their assembly-line diagnosis of both asbestosis and silicosis, a disease caused by exposure to silica particles found in construction materials," roared a WSJ commentary on March 13.
Last week The West Virginia Record reported that Dr. Ray Harron and his son, Dr. Andrew W. Harron of Kenosha, Wisc., and Dr. James Ballard of Birmingham, Ala., refused to tell legislators whether they would certify the accuracy of nearly 10,000 silicosis diagnoses on grounds of self-incrimination.
Steve Cohen, executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, said Harron and his "personal injury pals" may only have bought time as federal and congressional probes into silicosis and asbestos litigation presses forward.
"Ultimately, their scam can bring reform to get junk science out of the courts so juries can have accurate information from reputable experts," said Cohen.
He noted that West Virginia has recently been the subject of unwelcome national attention.
"This is the second time in three months that the Wall Street Journal has put the West Virginia lawsuit mill in the spotlight," said Cohen. In January, an article appeared in the publication about personal injury lawyers looking for opportunity at the Sago Mine disaster site.
"The real tragedy here is that those who are truly sick and those who are deserving of compensation lose out," said Cohen.
The doctors who were invited to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on March 8 did not do so voluntarily. They were subpoenaed as part of a fraud probe which began last summer in federal Judge Janis Graham Jack's courtroom.
Jack lashed out that many of the 10,000 Multi-District Litigation claims channeled into federal court were not driven by health or justice. "They were manufactured for money," she wrote. Jack sent thousands of claims back to state courts and sanctioned a plaintiff's firm.
According to the WSJ's recent commentary, the Manville Trust – which has paid out thousands of lung disease claims -- recently disclosed new statistics about the doctors who have authenticated the diagnoses:
"Ray Harron tops every category, having personally diagnosed disease in 51,048 Manville claims. He also supplied 88,258 reports in support of other claims. And he made it a trifecta by diagnosing more claimants in one day than anyone else: 515 people on November 21, 1994, or the equivalent of more than one a minute in an eight-hour shift.
"Dr. Ballard also ranks high, having provided 10,700 primary diagnoses, and a further 30,329 reports in support of claims. Though Dr. Ballard's all-time daily high is a mere 297, these guys must be truly gifted diagnosticians."
At the committee hearing, radiologist Dr. George Martindale of Mobile, Ala., and the owner of a lung disease screening company he contracted with, Heath Mason, of N&M, Inc., from Moss Point, Miss., explained to the committee how they made money from patient "inventory."
Mason said he provided screenings for many law firms, and singled out a national asbestos firm based in Waco, Texas -- Cherry Campbell-- as a firm that only paid his company for positive diagnoses.
Mason said he counted on physicians such as Dr. Ray Harron to provide them. Harron has reportedly earned nearly $10 million from making diagnoses that became the basis for litigation.
Martindale contracted with Mason to read X-rays. Martindale insisted that he only supported diagnoses made by Harron.
"I had been told that a diagnosis existed," Martindale said. "It was more prevalent for settling cases to have a second opinion."
The Wall Street Journal reports that Martindale was responsible for signing off on more than 3,600 silicosis claims in the "Jack" litigation, "only to admit later that he didn't even know the criteria for diagnosing the disease."
The WSJ commentary continues:
"He had included in his reports a standard paragraph provided by the X-ray screening company (N&M) that had hired him, and Dr. Martindale said he only found out later that lawyers had submitted the claims listing him as the principal diagnosing physician. Dr. Martindale told the committee that he thought he was merely providing a "second opinion" on people Ray Harron had already diagnosed.
"If you're beginning to feel a little slimy just reading this, we know how you feel."