The Fourth Circuit has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the families of coal miners who were denied benefits for black lung disease after a doctor insisted that X-rays did not show the disease.
The Johns Hopkins Black Lung Program
Miners who were diagnosed with black lung disease were eligible for benefits through a federal program. Black lung is an incurable and potentially fatal disease that is triggered by breathing coal dust.
The Johns Hopkins Black Lung Program was headed by Dr. Paul Wheeler. In the over 1,500 cases where he offered an opinion, Dr. Wheeler did not find a single case of black lung. In 2013, the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News published an investigation that reported hundreds of cases where Dr. Wheeler or staff said a miner did not have black lung after other doctors confirmed a diagnosis.
Johns Hopkins has since terminated its program.
The Class-Action Lawsuit
In 2016, the family members of coal miners who were denied benefits for black lung disease filed suit against Johns Hopkins Health System, Johns Hopkins Hospital, Johns Hopkins Imaging, Johns Hopkins University, and Dr. Paul Wheeler. Dr. Wheeler is a radiologist and agent of Johns Hopkins who acted as an expert witness in administrative hearings for the Federal Black Lung Program.
The lawsuit included a federal claim under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) as well as state law claims for fraud, tortious interference with economic interests, negligent misrepresentation, and unjust enrichment.
The families’ attorney argued that Wheeler and the black lung unit at John Hopkins believed that they were “above the law” when Wheeler disregarded regulations on how to interpret X-rays to diagnose black lung disease.
The district court dismissed each of the claims on the basis of the Witness Litigation Privilege, which protects witnesses who testify in judicial and quasi-judicial proceedings from later civil liability.
The appeal went before a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. In a 2-1 decision, the panel upheld the ruling of the trial court, finding that expert witnesses are shielded from civil liability under Maryland and federal law.
The panel noted that “Immunity for witnesses ― commonly known as the Witness Litigation Privilege ― is a longstanding and necessary part of the common law’s approach to adversarial adjudication. In fact, ‘the immunity of parties and witnesses from subsequent damages liability for their testimony in judicial proceedings was well established in English common law.’”
The panel stated that, “When a witness takes the oath, submitting his own testimony to cross-examination, the common law does not allow his participation to be deterred or undermined by subsequent collateral actions for damages. The vital protection afforded all participants in litigation is unwavering. It is a bedrock of our law today just as it was centuries ago.”
The panel then ruled that the allegations against Dr. Wheeler and his team fell squarely within the scope of the Witness Litigation Privilege because the hearings were quasi-judicial in nature and the allegations related to Dr. Wheeler’s testimony and opinions that he offered in the BLBA proceedings.