Attorneys for many of the more than 280 afflicted patients — 23 of whom have died — predict that the number of suits will multiply exponentially in the coming weeks. And several of the plaintiffs are among the roughly 14,000 people who received injections from the implicated lots but who have not actually been diagnosed with meningitis, suggesting the ultimate tally of lawsuits could run in the thousands.
The race to sign up clients is palpable, even in states where the outbreak has been relatively contained. In Minnesota, where seven people have been officially linked to the outbreak since the first cases were detected last month, a recent edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune featured prominent advertisements by two law firms. And a Google search of the term “fungal meningitis” brings up a blizzard of paid ads from attorneys across the country urging the reader to “Protect Your Loved One’s Rights!” and “Contact Us Immediately.”
Alyson Oliver, an attorney whose Rochester, Mich.-based firm bought its first Google ad last Monday, said she was motivated to do so after agreeing to file suit in U.S. District Court on behalf of Brenda Bansale, a 46-year-old homemaker who was hospitalized to treat severe headaches shortly after receiving a shot from one of the potentially contaminated lots.
“We’re already going to be deeply involved in investing resources and time to help Mrs. Bansale,” Oliver said. “So, to the extent that we can take that knowledge and put it to use for other people involved, that would be beneficial.”
Several plaintiffs attorneys said their hand could be strengthened if federal authorities successfully pursue criminal charges against New England Compounding.
Federal Drug Administration criminal investigators searched the company’s offices Tuesday. In a statement issued that day, U.S. Attorney Carmen A. Ortiz confirmed that her staff and other law enforcement agencies are investigating allegations concerning the company. However, she said it was “entirely premature” to predict the results.
A spokesman for New England Compounding, Andrew Paven, declined to discuss the company’s legal situation.
“While the company is cooperating with both federal and state authorities to determine the cause of contamination, and at the same time professionally and efficiently manage the recalls that have been initiated, we will refrain from commenting on legal issues both existing and hypothetical,” Paven wrote in an e-mail Friday.
Among the challenges for plaintiffs is the considerable variation among state laws likely to apply. So far, the outbreak has spanned 16 states, including some with strict limits on product liability claims.