One of America’s most renowned medical centers — The Johns Hopkins Hospital — intentionally defrauded hundreds of sick coal miners out of compensation and health benefits while pocketing large sums from coal companies, according to a class action lawsuit filed by the families of two coal miners who died of black lung disease.
The lawsuit, which also targets a longtime Hopkins doctor, draws heavily from revelations in an investigative report by the Center for Public Integrity, in partnership with ABC News, about a unit of radiologists who for decades provided coal companies X-ray readings that almost always said the miner didn't have black lung, helping the companies avoid paying benefits under a program administered by the federal government.
In response to a request for comment, a Johns Hopkins spokesperson said, "We are reviewing the complaint."
The Center investigation found that the longtime leader of the unit, Dr. Paul Wheeler, had read X-rays in more than 1,500 cases just since 2000 but never once found a case of severe black lung, despite the fact that other doctors looking at the same films found evidence of the disease hundreds of times. Wheeler’s credentials and longtime affiliation with Johns Hopkins often trumped those of all other doctors involved, and administrative judges credited his reports over those of other doctors and denied more than 800 claims.
Yet the Center found that in more than 100 cases, biopsies or autopsies proved Wheeler wrong.
That is what happened in the case of longtime miner Steve Day, whose family members are lead plaintiffs in the new lawsuit, filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. After more than 30 years working in the mines, Day applied in 2005 for benefits through a program administered by the federal government. A half-dozen doctors saw advanced black lung on his X-rays and CT scans. But the judge deferred to the credentials of Wheeler and two colleagues at Johns Hopkins who said they saw no evidence of the disease, denying Day’s claim. After the Center featured Day’s story, he reapplied for benefits but died while the case was ongoing. An autopsy revealed a severe case of black lung, and his surviving family members continued and won the benefits claim.
A similar story played out in the claim of Junior Barr, whose family members are the other lead plaintiffs in the suit. The Day and Barr families, represented by lawyers Jonathan Nace and Chris Nidel, say in the complaint that their cases are representative of perhaps hundreds of others and ask a Baltimore City judge to allow the case to proceed as a class action.