The Lawyer invites a court to probe his suspicious claims.
Readers of these columns may recall federal Judge Janis Graham Jack, who in 2005 blew the lid off the silicosis scam and shut down that fraudulent tort industry. A similar opportunity is unfolding in Baltimore City Circuit Court, but this time the subject is asbestos litigation.
This opportunity comes courtesy of plaintiffs lawyer Peter Angelos, who last year took the audacious step of asking the court to consolidate 13,000 of his asbestos claims into a single suit. No court has agreed to a mass asbestos consolidation in more than a decade. Such cases involve too many plaintiffs, products, workplaces and diseases to make justice possible.
Courts instead have coped with the asbestos flood by creating “inactive dockets,” which hold the claims of unimpaired plaintiffs. If a plaintiff develops a disease, he can petition to move to court. Mr. Angelos wants to upend this system and consolidate his claims into one giant payday.
Judge John M. Glynn hasn’t ruled on the motion, but the request has provided an unexpected opportunity for disclosure. Judge Jack unearthed the silicosis swindle because she ordered unprecedented discovery into the 10,000 claims in her court. She found that 9,000 claimants had been “diagnosed” by the same nine doctors who were taking orders from law firms that had brought suit. One doctor performed 1,239 diagnostic evaluations in 72 hours—less than four minutes apiece.
No such wide-ranging discovery has ever happened in asbestos. Without mass consolidations and with inactive dockets, law firms have taken to running the claims of unimpaired plaintiffs individually through the 40 or so trusts established by bankrupt asbestos firms. Those trusts hold a trove of data that, if compiled, would likely show the same sort of doctor-lawyer collusion exposed in silicosis.
So it’s no surprise that the asbestos bar has pressured trusts to keep their information locked up. The largest trust, Johns Manville, made claims data available until about five years ago, then succumbed to pressure and closed shop.
That might have come too late for Mr. Angelos. The trial lawyer has been suing for a long time, and many of his 13,000 claims were filed long ago—some in the 1980s. This has allowed defendant companies in the Baltimore suit to compare the Social Security numbers and names of Mr. Angelos’s claimants to one of the last data dumps by Johns Manville, which includes names, doctors and diagnoses. The results might impress even Judge Jack.
The first discovery was that more than 1,500 claimants were duplicates. Of the remaining 11,383 plaintiffs, nearly 70% had been diagnosed by one or more of the same five doctors. One of the physicians, William Goldiner, diagnosed nearly 50% of the plaintiffs, 77 in one day. When not outputting claims for the tort bar, Dr. Goldiner works as a team doctor for the Baltimore Orioles, which are owned by Peter Angelos. Another doctor, Joseph Kligman, is a former partner of Dr. Goldiner. The other three doctors either prepared reports at Dr. Goldiner’s request or relied on his exams.
This new information all but obliges Judge Glynn to do a Judge Jack—dig into the claims and see how many are bogus suits manufactured with the help of friendly doctors. As silicosis proved, such discovery is the best way for the judiciary to stop the avalanche of fraudulent claims so legitimate victims can get their day in court.
The Angelos revelation also adds urgency to a U.S. House of Representatives bill that would require asbestos trusts to make public their detailed claims data. This would help defense attorneys connect dots and expose fraud. The silicosis blowup cost doctors their licenses and earned fines for screening companies and law firms. Democrats who oppose the legislation should have to explain why they put their trial-bar friends ahead of transparency and judicial fairness.
The asbestos litigation scam has dragged on because it has been allowed to operate in the shadows. The Baltimore court and Congress have a rare chance to shine a light.
A version of this article appeared April 10, 2013, on page A12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Peter Angelos’s Asbestos Book.