February 17, 2006

Lawmakers seek info from lawyers in silica cases

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers on Friday expanded a
probe into thousands of suspect lawsuits that blame silica for
lung disease and demanded information about the conduct of 13
law firms in Texas and Mississippi that filed many of the

The House Energy and Commerce Committee last autumn opened
its investigation by seeking information from a dozen doctors
who had diagnosed silicosis in the claimants.

Silicosis is a lung-scarring disease caused by inhaling
silica dust, typically in occupations such as sandblasting.
Silica sand is used to make glass and is a common ingredient in
many industrial products.

On Friday, the House committee announced it was now looking
into the conduct of the lawyers involved in the cases as well.

The panel sent letters to 13 law firms and to authorities
in six states where mass x-ray screenings were conducted to
find victims to make the claims.

The silicosis lawsuits involved in the probe were first
questioned last June when U.S. Judge Janis Jack in Corpus
Christi, Texas sent about 10,000 of the claims back to state
courts, saying they had had been "manufactured for money."

The judge said many of the people diagnosed with silicosis
had previously filed claims for asbestos-related disease, which
medical experts said was highly unusual.

The House committee followed up with an investigation, but
has not publicized its findings so far. A committee spokesman
said on Friday it was too soon to say if lawmakers would hold
hearings or propose legislation.

The letters sent by the panel to the law firms questioned
if a doctor-patient relationship existed with the mass
screenings, noting some used mobile x-ray equipment in the back
of a truck to find people to file the lawsuits. "It is hard to
imagine circumstances where leaving such tasks to lawyers could
be considered acceptable medical practice or serving the
interest of public health," they said.

The House panel gave the law firms until March 3 to respond
with information about their financial arrangements with
doctors and medical screening companies.

The lawmakers also wrote to state health authorities in
Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio,
asking about state regulations for diagnostic testing done
without the prior authorization of a licensed physician.