As I’ve mentioned before, due to the ubiquitous presence of asbestos in certain industries all the way until the 1990s, we could see 60,000 or more new mesothelioma cases filed over the next few decades, and it seems there are still many big questions to answer through litigation. We should be talking about ways to streamline that process and, more than that, looking for ways to cure or to prevent mesothelioma.


Yet, when insurance companies and negligent corporations want to avoid responsibility for hurting someone, they try to change the subject by pointing the finger at the trial lawyers. Thus, earlier this week the Wall Street Journal had a long profile of the relationship between the lawyers who represent mesothelioma patients in their claims against the asbestos companies and the doctors who treat mesothelioma patients. In short, nobody funds mesothelioma research — not the government, not the big pharmaceutical companies, and certainly not the companies responsible for poisoning tens of thousands of workers — and thus much of the research money ends up coming from non-profits funded by mesothelioma lawyers who, having spent years watching their clients succumb to mesothelioma, felt compelled to put their own money back into improving treatments and, maybe, finding a cure.


But I bet you already knew where the Wall Street Journal was going with these  donations:


The two have forged what has become an increasingly common relationship between a subset of cancer doctors and plaintiffs’ attorneys, sharing what for each is an increasingly scarce but valuable resource: victims of mesothelioma.

It is an unusual alliance in the world of medicine that some ethics experts say blurs ethical lines. This is particularly true when doctors refer patients to attorneys who provide financial support for their medical research.


And there you go: in one fell swoop, people dying of cancer caused by just going to work are reduced a “valuable resource,” and charitable giving is turned into an implied ethical violation, and the handful of doctors capable of treating these patients have a cloud of doubt cast over them. The WSJ then had a companion article about advertising for asbestos lawsuits that relies primarily on remarks by “a provider of Internet marketing software and services” and someone who “specializes reselling domain names he has purchased,” as if either of them had a clue about how mesothelioma clients actually find lawyers.


Let’s put aside the fact that the two WSJ articles reach opposite conclusions — one says the clients are passed along by nefarious doctors, the other says clients are “caught” through blanket television and web advertising — and go back to the accusation that there’s something wrong with mesothelioma lawyers putting money, with no strings attached, into non-profits that grant research funding, and that there’s something wrong with mesothelioma doctors accepting that money to conduct research. 


Two of the lawyers mentioned in the article, Jerome H. Block at Levy Phillips & Konigsberg LLP and Roger G. Worthington at Worthington & Caron, have posted their own responses. Block’s response notes:


As the article discusses, our firm has donated money to New York University to help fund the ground-breaking mesothelioma research of Harvey I. Pass, MD. Last year, this research money contributed to a landmark study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that identified, for the first time, a marker in human blood that may be able to detect mesothelioma at an earlier stage when it might be more treatable. … We have also donated money to the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation (MARF) for many years, because MARF is the only non-profit organization in the United States that turns its donations into research grants that are selected by an independent scientific advisory board.


Worthington’s response notes:

[I]f money curries favor, from a strict profits and losses perspective, why hasn’t the asbestos industry donated to research? A few years ago, Dr. Cameron was invited to speak to 600 asbestos defense lawyers, insurance adjusters and company reps. He talked about the medical and ethical benefits of sponsoring research. How much did they pony up? Zero. Now, that’s “disgraceful.”

The asbestos industry is notorious for corrupting the medical and scientific literature with false and deceptive articles they paid for designed to prove to juries that asbestos is as benign as mother’s milk. If anyone knows how to curry favor with money, it’s the asbestos industry.


All fair points. To me, the most revealing part of the WSJ article was — like with all the hoopla surrounding the “fraud” found in the asbestos trusts — the absence of any concrete examples of a problem. The money is out there for everyone to see, all part of above-board non-profits, and yet the best the Wall Street Journal could come up with was “the case of a mesothelioma patient who, acting on the advice of an attorney, requested a surgery [the thoracic surgeon] had deemed medically unnecessary. The reason? Complicated surgery could make for a more compelling court case.”


I have my doubts about the facts underlying that case — it could be as simple as the client blurring together two separate remarks from the attorney, one about how more surgeries can produce higher awards and another about talking to their doctor about a variety of possible treatments — but, more to the point, the example disproves the main thesis of the article, i.e., that doctors are altering their treatment to please lawyers. A Boston University professor who long ago represented asbestos defendants wonders if “the pitfalls of a conflict of interest will trip up the lawyers or the doctors, even those with the best intentions” — if so, then the WSJ wasn’t able to dig up any evidence of it.


The most potentially misleading quote comes from Dr. Jerome Kassirer, the former Editor-in-Chief, New England Journal of Medicine:


It “has the taste of a kickback,” said Dr. Jerome Kassirer, author of a book about financial conflicts of interest in medicine and a former editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine. “This is a disgrace to both professions,” he said.


Note that the “it” in that quote comes from the Wall Street Journal, not Dr. Kassirer. What exactly was he calling a “disgrace?” It seems highly unlikely he would call the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation — which makes grants vetted by an independent scientific advisory board, a far better process than the cynical processes used on a daily basis by the pharmaceutical industry to control research into new drugs — a “disgrace” to either profession. I wonder whether the reporter gave him the misleading prompt in the prior sentence, which falsely claims “doctors refer patients to attorneys who provide financial support for their medical research,” a quid pro quo claim the WSJ wasn’t able to prove actually happens.


Just another day and another effort to distract the public and politicians from a real health and safety issue by blaming trial lawyers.