Stop the screening

The SE Texas Record Mar. 29, 2007, 10:11am

It hasn't hit the local headlines, but the heaviest heavy of Jefferson County's plaintiff's bar is at the center of a sandy scrap in the Keystone State.

That's Pennsylvania, to the uninitiated. And the issue is mass, assembly-line screenings of potential plaintiffs, an unsavory practice by which faux-doctors team with money-hungry lawyers to gin up hordes of cases in one fell swoop.

Who knew the tentacles of our very own Provost Umphrey stretched so far as those sleepy northeastern burgs of Harrisburg and Wilkes-Barre?

By way of its Philadelphia office, the firm's lawyers set up shop like migrant produce salesmen in a few motel parking lots-- including a Best Western and a Comfort Inn-- armed with a truck stuffed with x-ray equipment and a simple, if implicit promise: Let us see your lungs, and we'll help get you paid.

The tactical problem here, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PDEP), is that no doctors were involved. In February, it fined the company that owned the truck $80,500, claiming it exposed 161 men to x-ray beams, with no radiologist. We bet there were lots of lawyers, though, busy selling their subjects on virtues of silicosis.

Silicosis, or a scarring of the lungs caused by inhalation of sand dust, is tragic but extremely rare. But just as in the case of asbestosis, a similar malady that has earned Provost Umphrey hundreds of millions in contingency fees, plaintiffs didn't have to actually be sick to prove lucrative. They merely needed to play ball, get their x-ray and go along for the ride.

U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack uncovered as much two years ago while reigning over claims by Provost Umphrey and others on behalf of some 10,000 silicosis plaintiffs in her Corpus Christi courtroom. She threw nearly every one of them out, charging they were the by-product of mass screening fraud.

"These diagnoses were about litigation rather than health care," she wrote. "These diagnoses were manufactured for money."

That's manufactured at mass screenings, which don't just embarrass the legal profession but also debase our justice system, flooding it with frivolous claims that crowd out the truly legitimate ones. The net is that lawyers strike it richer, all at the expense of those who are truly sick, deserving and waiting.

The lawyers at Provost Umphrey didn't invent the practice, but they sure caught on fast. It's about time they relinquished mass screenings once-and-for-all. Haven't these folks earned enough?

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