Lawsuits over tainted steroid injections expected to grow

Published 2:40 pm Saturday, October 13, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS — Barbe Puro hasn’t been diagnosed with fungal meningitis, but when she heard about the growing national outbreak of the rare disease linked to tainted steroid injections, the suburban Minneapolis woman called a lawyer.

Her lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court in Minnesota may be the first to stem from the outbreak, which was traced to injections prepared by a suburban Boston compounding pharmacy and which by Friday had reached 184 confirmed cases and 14 deaths in 12 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With lawyers busy fielding calls and seeking out victims, hundreds of other claims are likely.

“Frankly, every lawyer and his brother is trolling for these cases,” said Fred Pritzker, a Minneapolis personal injury lawyer. His firm is among the many advertising on the Internet for clients who got the suspect injections made by the New England Compounding Center.

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Puro said she was one of the roughly 14,000 people who may have received contaminated steroid shots. Like many of them, she received the injections to ease her chronic back pain. After getting shots Sept. 17 at a pain clinic near her home, she suffered headaches and nausea for a week, the lawsuit alleges. Then she got a call from state health officials who told her to see her doctor because the shots may have been contaminated.

Puro underwent a painful spinal tap and other tests and said she’s been suffering emotional distress. Her lawyer, Jeffrey Montpetit, said Friday that she hasn’t felt well enough to do interviews.

Puro, in her lawsuit, accuses New England Compounding Center of negligence. She’s suing for an unspecified amount of money in damages, and she’s seeking class-action status for the lawsuit to cover others in Minnesota who received the drug.

A Google search of “fungal meningitis” on Friday brought up a slew of paid ads from law firms looking for clients. Social media-savvy lawyers such as Pritzker were also using Twitter. He said his firm was representing about 20 potential cases around the country and that he expected that figure to rise.

The myriad of cases will likely be consolidated to ease the burden on courts, several lawyers said.

Lawsuits over other defective drugs have resulted in huge settlements, jury awards and fines. Merck & Co. agreed in 2007 to a $4.85 billion settlement involving its painkiller Vioxx. Wyeth agreed to settle claims over its diet drug combo fen-phen for $3.75 billion in 1999, but eventually set aside over $21 billion to cover the continuing flow of claims.

How much meningitis victims will recover is uncertain.

Don Migliori, a Providence, R.I., attorney who said his firm is reviewing potential cases, said it’s not clear yet how much money New England Compounding Center has in the way of assets or insurance coverage to pay claims.

Finding enough money to compensate everyone who died, became ill, or didn’t become ill but underwent painful tests, will likely require suing pain clinics and other health care providers that administered the injections, Pritzker said.

Nearly half of the deaths and almost one-third of the confirmed cases reported so far were in Tennessee, where Mark Chalos is representing around a dozen clients, including the family of one patient who died. His firm is among running ads on Google.

“Our phone is ringing pretty steadily with folks who’ve been injured, or lost a loved one, or are concerned their current health problems might be related to the injections,” Chalos said.