Learning from Dr. Harron

By The West Virginia Record | Feb 10, 2006

In the tragic tale that is America's affair with the fire-retarding mineral asbestos, Dr. Ray Harron of Bridgeport is one of the most villainous villains.

Even the New York Times splashed Harron on its front page last fall, after a federal judge accused he and several other radiologists of diagnosing for dollars -- suggesting that thousands of people got sick from inhaling sand particles so they might sue companies for cash.

Harron, who reportedly has diagnosed some 53,000 people as sick from inhaling asbestos, admitted that he never even looked at the 2,700 diagnoses he alone submitted in the Mississipi lawsuits in question.

"These diagnoses were driven by neither health nor justice," wrote U.S. District Judge Janis Jack, throwing them out. "They were manufactured for money."

Manufacturing sickness to squeeze lawsuit settlement cash is a favorite pastime of some plaintiff's lawyers. And if Dr. Harron's experience is any guide, finding greedy doctors to act as their partners in crime hasn't proven much of a hurdle.

For those of you unfamiliar with the game, it goes like this:

"Entrepreneurial" lawyers find a union hall full of men who may have been exposed to asbestos at some point in their working careers. As the product -- used for fireproofing everything from walls and ceilings to brake pads, shoes, and stage curtains -- was legal and ubiquitous for most of the last century, this isn't difficult.

They find a "doctor" like Harron to agree with them that the dozens of workers show signs of illness from asbestos exposure. Then, in a plaintiff-friendly court that welcomes them, the lawyer files suit on behalf of all of them, targeting every and any company under the sun that might have been connected or related to asbestos usage.

Having covered hundreds of these cases, the only prerequisite we can find for qualifying as a defendant is that the company has deep enough pockets to settle.

For a real life example of this, see our story this week on plaintiff Charles Largent of Michigan. He recently filed suit in Kanawha County Court against 39 companies -- including General Electric, Bondex, General Motors, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, and Honeywell -- alleging that their "conspiracy" to promote asbestos led to his cancer.

Largent says he has mesothelioma, a serious cancer caused by asbestos inhalation, and we have no reason not to believe him. But why sue the world's largest automakers or GE? And when you live in Michigan, why do it in West Virginia?

The real answers to such questions illuminate why the state Legislature so desperately needs to reform our state's system of handling such claims.

Justice for those suffering from asbestos should be about righting past wrongs, not companies cutting their losses while lawyers game the system.

Ray Harron may be in the rear view mirror -- but he shouldn't be forgotten.

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