Appeals Court Rules Mississippi Can Discipline Black Lung Radiologist

By JEFF AMY | September 25, 2014

Mississippi’s Court of Appeals says the state Board of Medical Licensure can discipline a radiologist for making what a federal judge found to be thousands of “manufactured” lung disease diagnoses.

The Court of Appeals, ruling Tuesday, reversed a lower court verdict that the board had acted unfairly toward Dr. Ray Harron. The West Virginia physician’s work for lawyers who filed thousands of cases seeking damage for silicosis was made an example of litigation gone awry by business and insurance lobbyists.

Harron worked for a Moss Point firm called Netherland & Mason that screened potential plaintiffs for claims that their lungs were damaged by exposure to asbestos or silica.

In a 2005 federal hearing in Corpus Christi, Texas, Harron testified that he allowed medically untrained employees to produce form letters of diagnoses and stamp his name on them. He admitted he never looked at the letters. In many cases, Harron diagnosed a person with both asbestosis and silicosis by reading the same X-ray. Defense experts in workplace respiratory diseases testified it was extremely rare for the same person to have both diseases, and Harron’s reports would make it appear irreversible signs of damage had disappeared on a second reading.

Later in 2005, a Noxubee County judge dismissed more than 4,200 claims alleging exposure to silica had caused the lung ailment silicosis. As of 2004, about two-thirds of the nation’s 30,000 silica claimants had filed their cases in Mississippi.

In 2007, Mississippi’s licensure board ordered Harron to never renew his lapsed Mississippi medical license.

Harron didn’t appeal that finding. But appealed when the licensure board reported his actions to a national data bank, saying his actions could have hurt patients.

Harron disagreed, saying he only acted as a legal witness and was not practicing medicine when he submitted the reports. He also refused to pay $5,000 in costs, and eventually appealed the case to Hinds County Chancery Court. A judge agreed and overturned the verdict. The licensure board renewed its order in 2012, this time ordering Harron to pay $10,000. He again appealed to Hinds County Chancery Court and won.

The appeals court, though, ruled for the licensure board, saying it was allowed to discipline the physician under a state law barring unprofessional conduct, deception and fraud.

“Dr. Harron was, in fact, providing medical services to 2,600 patients” Chief Judge Joseph L. Lee wrote for the court. “He was not simply testifying as an outside consultant with no connection to a patient, as when a doctor testifies as an expert on the standard of care. He was testifying as the diagnosing physician for thousands of patients.”

“There can be no real dispute that misdiagnosing someone with having a deadly disease such as silicosis has the potential to harm that person,” Lee wrote.

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