The A. H. Robins Co. moved yesterday to try to limit its liability to thousands of women who claim its Dalkon Shield intrauterine contraceptive device caused them to suffer life-threatening pelvic infections and related injuries and who seek billions of dollars in damages.
The pharmaceutical manufacturer asked the U.S. District Court in its home city of Richmond to consolidate all Dalkon Shield lawsuits for punitive damages into a class action so that a single trial could determine Robins' liabilty for alleged wrongful conduct.
If Robins were to be held liable, the court could fix the amount of punitive damages to be available to all present and future plaintiffs and also could decide how the damages would be shared. Each plaintiff could decide whether she wished to participate or litigate independently.
Robins' data show that, as of June 30, there were 1,148 plaintiffs seeking $12.3 billion in punitive damages, 1,982 seeking punitive awards in unspecified amounts, 99 seeking $259 million in combined punitive and compensatory damages, 1,109 seeking $2.7 billion in compensatory damages, and 2,131 seeking unspecified compensatory damages.
Company spokesman Roscoe E. Puckett said that the court motion was not related to the failure of the U.S. Senate to approve a national uniform product-liability bill that would have exempted Robins from paying punitive damages hereafter.
Robins Vice President and General Counsel William A. Forrest Jr. said a class action would be the only fair resolution of the punitive-damages cases. But several plaintiffs' lawyers disagreed and said they expected to fight the move.
In Denver, plaintiffs' lawyer John T. Baker said the proposed class action would limit not only Robins' liability for wrongful conduct, but also could reduce the amount it pays to settle claims brought by women who seek punitive damages.
In 1982, Baker recalled, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to go along with creating a nationwide class-action case over Dalkon Shield damages.
The Robins motion also seeks creation of a voluntary procedure to dispose of claims for compensatory damages. Litigants willing to settle without going to court could pursue their claims "with a minimum of delay and expense," according to a Robins press release.
As of Sept. 30, Robins and its insurer had paid out $245 million to dispose of 7,600 Shield suits and non-litigated claims, but 3,768 were still pending.
During a 3 1/2-year period, physicians inserted the IUD in an estimated 2.2 million American women. At the request of the Food and Drug Administration, which was disturbed by a rising toll of infected miscarriages in users of the device, Robins ended sales of the device in mid-1974.