Monday, October 15, 2007

Asbestos expert used in local cases comes under scrutiny

For almost a decade, Dr. Jay T. Segarra was considered the lung disease expert local plaintiffs lawyers called on to testify in their massive asbestos cases.

In the early days, on his way to earning a handsome fortune, Segarra testified as an expert here in Jefferson County for a 1998 Reaud, Morgan & Quinn case against U.S. Steel. The case, Inez Martin et al vs. AC&S et al, is still active and listed on the October docket of the 60th District Court.

After that, Dr. Segarra, a pulmonary specialist, was then used heavily as an expert throughout the late 1990s by Reaud, Provost Umphrey, Brent Coon and other plaintiffs' firms in Jefferson and Orange counties.

But according to a recent New York Times article, things have taken a turn for the worse for Segarra.

Defendants in a large Philadelphia asbestos case have asked the court to exclude testimony from Dr. Segarra because he had not followed "the standards for which he so adamantly advocated."

The Times reported that a defense motion filed last month claimed Dr. Segarra has made more than $10 million as professional witness and has been working with mass screening companies that result in "an astonishing number of would-be plaintiffs with asbestos and/or silicosis - not for any valid medical reason, but solely for profit."

Segarra, 51, lives and works on the Mississippi Gulf coast. The doctor has reportedly participated in almost 40,000 positive diagnoses for asbestos-related illnesses over the past 13 years.

As late as Sept. 1, 2006, Dr. Segarra's name appeared on a plaintiffs' designation as a "Will Call" expert witness in a large asbestos suit filed by Coon in Jefferson County.

And it wasn't just in Southeast Texas that Segarra was considered one of the top experts in asbestos-related diseases. In 2005, a federal judge in Corpus Christi held Dr. Segarra's procedure for diagnosing the illnesses to be the gold standard.

When U.S. District Judge Janis Jack began to question mass screenings that were turning up clients with both asbestosis and silicosis, she relied on Dr. Segarra's expertise.

While asbestosis and silicosis are both lung diseases caused by inhaling dust, asbestos is a mineral that can cause cancer while silica is purified sand used in making glass.

Many pulmonary experts believe it is extremely rare for a patient to have both asbestosis and silicosis. For Judge Jack, a former nurse, the number of clients having both diseases raised a red flag.

Dr. Segarra told Judge Jack that good doctors personally perform physical examinations, discuss patients medical histories, read X-rays and then review and sign their reports. He said the process to determine if a person has asbestos or silicosis can take 60 to 90 minutes.

When Judge Jack ruled that thousands of silicosis claims had been manufactured for money, she pointed to Dr. Segarra as the standard that others should follow.

But the Times states that court records indicate that Dr. Segarra violated his own rules more than 700 times, relying on others for medical histories and exams.

Records from the Claims Resolution Management Corporation, which oversees asbestos claims, show that Dr. Segarra averaged eight positive diagnoses of asbestos-related illnesses per day over the last 13 years. Some days he rendered positive diagnoses for 20 to 50 people, which would not be possible using his own 60 to 90 minutes per exam timeframe.

In March 2006, an NPR segment looked into Judge Jack's ruling and Dr. Segarra's methods. Among those interviewed by Wayne Goodwyn for the story was Coon, who had been in Jack's court on silicosis cases.

Coon told Goodwyn he disagreed with much of Judge Jack's ruling.

"Judge Jack, she's a fine judge," Coon said in the March 6, 2006, segment of All Things Considered. "But I don't think she's very sophisticated about the process. I think this is the first time she'd actually had these complex mass tort cases in her courtroom."

He said that there were some problems with some of the silicosis diagnoses, but that Jack did properly weed those out. Coon went on to say that the screenings save lives by alerting clients to possible lung disease earlier than they might otherwise have known.

Coon said that overall, the screening process is "very good."


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