Who is liable for the deadly meningitis outbreak?

At least 23 people have died and another 300 have been stricken ill after tainted steroid medication caused a fungal meningitis outbreak earlier this month. Health officials say that as many as 14,000 people may have come into contact with the dangerous drugs, which means the death and sickness tolls are likely to rise.

The deadly outbreak was traced to a drug-mixing pharmacy in Massachusetts, which is now under investigation by state and federal officials for potential license violations. The company, New England Compounding Center, has already been served with several personal injury lawsuits brought by people who were infected.

But could other parties face lawsuits as well? According to a recent report by Reuters, it depends on how the cases are interpreted by courts. If courts define the tainted steroid injections as products that were sold, product liability law would apply, and hospitals and doctors could be held strictly liable regardless of culpability.

However, if the courts define the tainted steroid injections as a service received, medical malpractice law would apply and it would be more difficult for doctors and hospitals to be sued. This is because the plaintiffs would have to show that the doctors or hospitals acted negligently or with the intent to harm.

So far, at least a few patients who were exposed to meningitis have chosen to sue the doctors and clinics that administered the tainted steroid shots. Many more lawsuits could follow, depending on how the cases are defined by the courts.

The Reuters article said another entity that could be sued is the federal government. Plaintiffs could potentially argue that the Massachusetts pharmacy involved was under-regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which had busted NECC for violations in 2006.

Ultimately, the lawsuits would have to show that the government should have stopped the tainted steroid injections from hitting the market, the Reuters article said.

As you can see, this deadly outbreak is an event that will have long-lasting legal implications throughout the United States.

Source: Reuters, “Analysis: Meningitis suits may turn on how injections are defined,” Nick Brown, Oct. 24, 2012

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