And then there were none

The SE Texas Record Jul. 31, 2010, 7:56am

If any doubts remain about the success of medical malpractice reform in Texas, the recent denouement in a silicosis multi-district litigation court should put them to rest.

More than 5,000 plaintiffs filed suit against the U.S. Silica Co., claiming physical impairment from exposure to its products.

Five years ago, such claims might have been set for trial, but malpractice reforms passed by the state legislature in 2005 require such plaintiffs to substantiate claims with some rudimentary medical evidence.

It was not asking a lot. Plaintiffs didn't have to jump through hoops -- just provide some modest documentation that the claims had enough legitimacy to warrant litigation. The goal was to weed out bogus claims, not set impossible standards for those with credible grievances.

Out of more than 5,000 claims, one reasonably might expect a few dozen, or even a few hundred, to fail to pass muster. The vast majority surely would go to trial and be adjudicated.

Amazingly, of the more than 5,000 plaintiffs allegedly suffering from silicosis or other silica-related injury and demanding recompense from U.S. Silica, only 54 responded to a request for substantiation. Fifty-four -- roughly, 1 percent.

And fewer than half of that number provided sufficient authentication to warrant a trial. Twenty-one to be exact. Less than half of 1 percent.

More than 4,950 plaintiffs, 99 percent, did not bother to respond.

Their alleged injuries were too insubstantial -- or the minimal burden of proof too demanding -- to warrant pursuing their claims any further.

Such a dramatically weak response rate makes a reasonable person wonder. Were 99 percent of the claims dubious at best? It's difficult not to draw some obvious conclusions.

Harris County Court Judge Joseph Halbach, who's presiding over the evaporating lawsuits, will report to Gov. Rick Perry and the legislature later this year on the effectiveness of the 2005 reforms.

We expect it will be a big thumbs-up for those seeking to have the courthouse be a forum of justice rather than a forum of business for certain members of the trial bar.

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