3M Combat Arms™ Earplugs: Lawsuits Filed By Individual Service Members May Be Headed for Consolidation

On March 28, 2019, the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation will hear arguments from attorneys representing individual service members across the country and attorneys from 3M Company regarding whether claims against 3M for hearing loss injuries stemming from use of the earplugs during active duty should be consolidated for pretrial proceedings. In these lawsuits, service members claim the company defectively designed its earplugs such that they did not provide sufficient levels of hearing protection. Additionally, the lawsuits claim 3M misrepresented the effectiveness of its hearing protection devices to the military during the proposal process when seeking to procure a government contract to be the exclusive earplug provider to the military and thereafter. As a result, service members who used the earplugs allege incurring noise-induced tinnitus and hearing loss.

Background of 3M Combat Arms™ Earplug Litigation

Military service members in training, standard military operations, and especially those in combat, are often exposed to high intensity noise of various types. Between 2003 and 2015, Aero Technologies and 3M Company (who acquired Aero Technologies in 2008) sold millions of the Combat Arms™ earplugs to the military for use by service members in active combat and otherwise. The earplugs are non-liner, or selective attenuation earplugs; this means there are two sides to give soldiers two options for hearing reduction in one product. When worn on the olive-colored side, or the “closed” position, the earplugs were intended to block noise like a traditional earplug. When worn on the yellow side, the “open” position, the earplugs were intended to block or significantly reduce loud noises while allowing the user to hear lower level noises, like communications from commanding officers.

In May 2016, Moldex-Metric, Inc. filed a qui tam lawsuit against 3M Company alleging violations of the False Claims Act for representations it made to the United States about the hearing protection afforded by the Combat Arms™ earplugs. The qui tam action followed lawsuits both 3M and Moldex-Metric, Inc. had previously filed against each other; news reports indicate 3M sued Moldex-Metric, Inc. for earplug patent infringement and Moldex-Metric, Inc. countersued for fraud and failure of 3M’s earplugs to pass safety tests, in violation of its contracts with the military.

A qui tam lawsuit is a lawsuit brought by a private citizen – here, a competitor earplug manufacturer – that alleges false statements in the performance of contract with the government or in violation of government regulation. In other words, the lawsuits allege fraud on the government. Here, Moldex-Metric, Inc. alleged Aero Technologies designed the Combat Arms™ earplugs in a manner that was too short for correct insertion, resulting in loosening without recognition by the person wearing them – and that Aero Technologies knew about the product defect as early as 2000. The lawsuit maintained Aero Technologies/3M did not disclose this defect to the United States. Notably, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), tinnitus and hearing loss are the two most common health conditions among military veterans. The qui tam lawsuit cited sources quantifying VA service member hearing loss treatment at over $1 billion per year.

In a qui tam lawsuit, the government has the option to join the private citizen as a plaintiff in the lawsuit or to opt out and have the private citizen pursue the fraud claims on his or her own. In July 2018, the United States joined as a party and publicly announced a settlement with 3M. As part of the settlement, 3M paid $9.1 million to the United States “to resolve allegations that it knowingly sold the dual-ended Combat Arms Earplugs, Version 2 (CAEv2) to the United States military without disclosing defects that hampered the effectiveness of the hearing protection device.” The settlement resolved claims the U.S. government had against 3M; it did not resolve any claims of individual service members for injuries suffered as a result of 3M’s alleged false statements.

Following the announcement of the settlements and primarily starting in January 2019, individual service members who used the Combat Arms™ earplugs as instructed and suffered noise-induced hearing loss during their time in service began filing individual lawsuits against 3M. As of February 14, 2019, service members have filed over 150 lawsuits in various state and federal courts.

The United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation and the Case for Consolidation of 3M Combat Arms™ Earplug Lawsuits

tinnitus may cause depression in veterans

Multidistrict litigation is a mechanism for increasing efficiency in the federal court system. Created through an Act of Congress in 1968, 28 U.S.C. 1407, the law allows for the transfer of civil actions involving common questions of fact to one federal district court for coordinated or consolidated pretrial proceedings. The efficiency in transferring cases to on federal court, or “centralization,” is accomplished through avoidance of discovery duplication, prevention of inconsistent pretrial rulings, and conserving resources of the parties, their attorneys, and the judiciary.

Attorneys representing one of the service member plaintiffs filed a motion seeking transfer of claims by U.S. military personnel and other wearers of the Combat Arms™ earplugs who suffered hearing-related injuries for coordinated proceedings on January 25, 2009. To transfer a case, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation must determine that the transfer will (1) be for the convenience of parties and witnesses; and (2) promote the just and efficient conduct of the related lawsuits. If the Judicial Panel determines a case should be centralized, they will also determine at the hearing which judge will handle the centralized proceedings. General opinion is in favor of consolidation, given the similarity of all of the claims asserted and the number of claims filed – as well as the scores of lawsuits expected to be filed in the future. The real question may be which judge is appointed to oversee centralization – suggestions have included judges in the District of Minnesota (where 3M headquarters is located), the Eastern District of Louisiana, and the Western District of Missouri.

Searcy, Denney, Scarola, Barnhart & Shipley, P.A. is currently investigating and handling cases of service members who suffered hearing loss and tinnitus injuries arising from use of the 3M Combat Arms™ earplugs. If you have any questions about these cases, please give us a call.

United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation – January 2019 Hearing Session Preview

The next hearing session of the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (“JPML”) is scheduled for January 31, 2019 in Miami, Florida. Six matters are set for oral argument to consider motions to transfer each to one centralized district for coordinated pretrial proceedings. The matters set for this session include such hot topics as the massive Marriott data breach and litigation over Valsartan products contaminated with NDMA, a probable human carcinogen.

2018 JPML Year in Review

2018 saw a continuation of the pattern of decreasing motions for consolidation. Only 56 motions for centralization were filed in 2018, the lowest number in at least nine years and less than half of the 121 motions filed in 2009. However, the JPML centralized 28 of these new requests, an increase over the past two years. More actions were involved in those granted motions to centralize, the most in more than nine years. So, while requests to centralize are down, those actions that are centralized involve more lawsuits than in the recent past. MDLs continue to be dominated by products liability and antitrust cases. However, four new intellectual property MDLs were created in 2018.

Matters Set for January 2019 Oral Argument

The following matters are scheduled for oral argument during this first hearing session of the year:

MDL No. 2875 – In Re: Valsartan N-Nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA) Contamination Products Liability Litigation
MDL No. 2876 – In Re: Enhanced Recovery Company, LLC, Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) Litigation
MDL No. 2877 – In Re: Air Crash at Durango, Mexico, on July 31, 2018
MDL No. 2878– In Re: Ranbaxy Generic Drug Application Antitrust Litigation
MDL No. 2879 – In Re: Marriott International, Inc., Customer Data Security Breach Litigation
MDL No. 2880 – In Re: H&R Block Employee Antitrust Litigation

Notable Motions to Transfer

MDL No. 2875 – In Re: Valsartan N-Nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA) Contamination Products Liability Litigation. A class action plaintiff filed for transfer of at least fifteen consumer class action lawsuits and two individual lawsuits arising out of use of the generic drug Valsartan. The lawsuits were filed against manufacturers, distributors, and marketers of Valsartan – a prescription drug used primarily to treat high blood pressure and heart failure – following a July 2018 FDA announcement regarding voluntary recalls of several products containing the active ingredient valsartan after the products were found to contain NDMA, a probable human carcinogen. The moving plaintiff requested transfer to the District of New Jersey, where many of the actions are currently located and which serves to house the headquarters of at least three named defendants.

The main dispute over centralization between the parties in this case appears to be whether consumer class actions seeking solely economic damages and product liability cases requesting personal injury damages should be consolidated. Several of the defendants have opposed the transfer motion; while most defendants agree to transfer of the consumer class actions if the JPML feels it is warranted, they seek denial for the transfer of any individual personal injury claims.

MDL No. 2879 – In Re: Marriott International, Inc., Customer Data Security Breach Litigation. Data breach litigation continues trending in MDL requests for 2019; here, two motions for consolidation and transfer of litigation have been filed over the Marriott International, Inc. and Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, LLC data breach. The ten lawsuits that had been filed as of December 3, 2018 at the time of filing the motion to transfer has now grown to over 35 lawsuits. Plaintiffs allege Marriott failed to protect its customers’ private information, resulting in four years of hacker access to the reservation system of its hotel chains. Marriott disclosed the data breach on November 30, 2018, acknowledging that the names, addresses, credit card numbers, phone numbers, passport numbers, travel locations, and arrival and departure dates were exposed for up to 500 million customers. The two initial motions both requested transfer and consolidation to the District of Maryland, where Marriott headquarters are located, one alternatively suggesting the District of Massachusetts. Several briefs have subsequently been filed suggesting transfer to Florida, Connecticut, and New York.

MDL No. 2880 – In Re: H&R Block Employee Antitrust Litigation. This request to transfer and consolidate putative class action lawsuits centers around allegations that H&R Block violated the Sherman Antitrust Act by engaging in conspiracies not to compete for employees and to suppress employee wages. The lawsuits were filed on the heels of a July 2018 letter from 11 state attorneys general to eight national fast food franchisers requesting information about similar “no-poach” agreements in franchise contracts. The state attorneys general cited concern for such agreements limiting the abilities of fast-food and other low wage workers to seek raises and promotions in announcing the request for information. The current lawsuits allege that H&R Block has a policy in its own stores and require its franchisees to execute “no-poach” agreements, resulting in average wages of $10.86 per hour for H&R Block seasonal tax preparers as opposed to an industry hourly wage average of $22.67. H&R Block has opposed the transfer, citing only two jurisdictions where lawsuits have been filed as well as an arbitration agreement that it anticipates will remove at least two of the pending lawsuits.

Check Your Medicine Cabinet: FDA Announces Voluntary Recall for Over-the-Counter CVS Nasal Mist Due to Microbiological Contamination

For the 26.9 million sufferers of sinus pain and pressure, nasal sprays are one of the most recommended and effective methods of relief. But one product, labeled as a CVS brand nasal mist, is being pulled off the shelves. Product Quest Manufacturing, a Florida company that manufactures the product, recommends consumers stop using it immediately and either discard or return the spray to the place of purchase.

On August 8, 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) announced a voluntary recall of the CVS Health 12 Hour Sinus Relief Nasal Mist. Product Quest Manufacturing found a specific lot of their spray was contaminated with bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa. According to Product Quest, “repetitive use of a nasal spray containing a gram-negative pathogen can potentially lead to colonization and subsequent infection which can be life threatening in certain patient populations, such as those with cystic fibrosis or immune-compromised.”

The recalled products can be identified by locating the side panel. The side panels are coded with “Lot 173089J” and “EXP 09/19.” 16,896 units are involved in the recall. The units were sold nationwide.

What is Pseudomonas aeruginosa?

Pseudomonas aeruginosa is the most common strain of the Pseudomonas infection to cause problems in humans. Infections with this type of bacteria are generally treated with antibiotics, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that some strains – mostly in healthcare facilities – can be multidrug-resistant. Pseudomonas aeruginosa infections associated with healthcare facilities often cause bloodstream infections, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and surgical wound infections. Exposure to Pseudomonas aeruginosa is seen in hot tubs and swimming pools. These mild exposures in normally healthy people result in ear infections or skin rashes. Symptoms can also mimic the common cold or flu and include sinus pain and pressure, fever and chills, body aches, light-headedness, rapid pulse and breathing, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, or decreased urination.

Regulation of Over-the-Counter Medications

As an over-the-counter, or nonprescription, medication the CVS Health 12 Hour Sinus Relief Nasal Mist is sold directly to consumers without a prescription. In 1951, the Durham-Humphrey Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 established a legal framework for prescription and non-prescription drugs. The Amendment also authorized the FDA to make this prescription/over-the-counter distinction. The FDA states that medications designated as over-the-counter are generally safe and effective when used as directed. However, just because the FDA presumes over-the-counter drugs are safe does not mean they are free of defects. Being vigilant requires reading warning labels, taking medications as directed and watching for recalls such as this one for the CVS 12 Hour Sinus Relief Nasal Mist.

The FDA announcement directs consumers who have been injured by the nasal mist to report adverse reactions or quality problems to the FDA’s MedWatch Adverse Event Reporting program online at www.fda.gov/medwatch/report.htm, by regular mail or by fax.

If you become ill or are injured by an over-the-counter medication, seek the assistance of a physician or health care provider.

Popular Fluticasone Nasal Spray Recalled by Manufacturer

Small particles of glass are to blame for the recall of a widely used fluticasone nasal spray that treats symptoms of hay fever in children.

The nasal spray, known by its brand name Fluticasone Propionate Nasal Spray USP and manufactured by Apotex Corp., of Weston, Fla., was pulled voluntarily from the market by the company, which said the glass particles could clog the bottle and cause it to malfunction and, more importantly, abrade the inside of the nose. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) said the issue was detected via a complaint.

Glass Particles Found in Spray Bottle

“The glass particles could block the actuator and impact the functionality of the pump,” the FDA said in a safety alert titled “Fluticasone Propionate Nasal Spray by Apotex Corp: Recall – Due to Potential for Small Glass Particles.” “There is a potential for patients to be exposed to the glass particles and mechanical irritation cannot be ruled out. Local trauma to the nasal mucosa might occur with use of the defective product.”

With the exception of the complaint, Apotex Corp. has not been made aware of any other adverse events as a result of the recall.

“Patients, wholesalers, retailers, hospitals or institutions with Lot# NJ4501 and an expiration date of July 2020, should stop use and distribution of the remaining units and quarantine immediately,” according to the safety alert. “Healthcare Professionals in your organization should be informed of this recall.”

Fluticasone Widely Used for Allergies

Fluticasone By Ramon FVelasquez [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Fluticasone inhalers

Fluticasone Propionate Nasal Spray USP is for patients between the ages of 4 and 17 who suffer from seasonal allergies, sinus pain, sneezing and a stuffy nose. The drug also helps with itchy, watery eyes. It is a corticosteroid. WebMD explains its uses:

“The dosage is based on your age, medical condition, and response to treatment. Do not increase your dose or use this drug more often or for longer than directed. Your condition will not improve any faster, and your risk of side effects will increase. You may be directed to start with a higher dose of this drug for the first several days until you have begun to feel better, then decrease your dose. Children may need to use this drug for a shorter amount of time to lower the risk of side effects. If a child is using the over-the-counter product, read the package information to see how long he / she should use it and when you should check with the doctor.”

WebMD notes that the drug does not relieve symptoms immediately.

“You may feel an effect as soon as 12 hours after starting treatment, but it may take several days before you get the full benefit. If your condition does not improve after 1 week, or if it worsens, stop using this medication and consult your doctor or pharmacist. If you think you may have a serious medical problem, get medical help right away.

Precautions Necessary for Fluticasone Use

WebMD describes some of the precautions, as well.

“Rarely, using corticosteroid medications for a long time can make it more difficult for your body to respond to physical stress. Therefore, before having surgery or emergency treatment, or if you get a serious illness / injury, tell your doctor or dentist that you are using this medication or have used this medication within the past few months. Though it is unlikely, this medication may slow down a child’s growth if used for a long time. The effect on final adult height is unknown. See the doctor regularly so your child’s height can be checked. During pregnancy, this medication should be used only when clearly needed. Discuss the risks and benefits with your doctor. It is unknown if this drug passes into breast milk. Consult your doctor before breast-feeding.”

Anyone who has experienced problems with Fluticasone Propionate Nasal Spray USP should contact his or her physician immediately. The affected product’s label reads “50 mcg per spray 120 Metered Sprays.” It was distributed to wholesalers, including Sam’s Club and Walmart, nationwide.

“When inhaling nasal spray, glass probably tops the list of things you hope aren’t accidently in the bottle,” Healthcare Packaging states in an article on its Web site titled “Nasal Spray Recalled After Packaging Found to Contain Glass Particles.” “According to a recent FDA news release, Apotex Corp. has voluntarily recalled one lot of Fluticasone Propionate Nasal Spray for just that reason.”

Consumers who have questions about the recall are encouraged to reach out to Apotex Corp. at (800) 706-5575 or at uscustomerservice@apotex.com. Healthcare professionals are encouraged report adverse events to the FDA MedWatch program at fda.gov/medwatch A form also can be obtained by calling (800) 332-1088.

Data Breaches Prove Costly for Major Businesses

In an age where data is widely available and almost everything is stored online, data breaches are becoming more common, and the outcomes of cases involving data breaches are unpredictable. Data involved in a breach can range from financial data, such as credit card numbers, to health data, such as treatments and medical history. Based on previous settlements reached, stolen health data typically has the most extensive damages due to the incredibly personal nature of the data, while stolen credit card data has the least damages. It is a lot easier to cancel and replace a credit card than it is to replace identifying information such as a Social Security number. When there is a breach of identifying information, continued alertness is necessary to prevent identity theft, adding to the costs.

The Type of Data in a Data Breach Matters

There are two cases that illustrate the disparity between settlements involving different types of data. An infamous hacker who goes by the name “Cumbajohnny” was responsible for hacking both T.J Maxx and Heartland Payment Systems. Data for approximately 130 million credit and debit cards was stolen from Heartland, and more than 45 million credit card5s were affected from the T.J Maxx breach. However, the Heartland settlement was $500,000, despite involving the breach of three times the amount of data. The T.J Maxx settlement was valued at $6.1 million. The court’s value was based on the type of data breached; Cumbajohnny and his cohort stole identification information from at least 450,000 customers of T.J Maxx, including Social Security and driver’s license numbers. Although the nominal value of credit card information was larger for Heartland, considering the threat of identity theft, the real value of the 455,000 people affected from T.J Maxx was much greater. In fact, eighty-six percent of the T.J Maxx settlement was from the much smaller number of identifying information stolen, and the other fourteen percent is attributed to the 45 million stolen card records.

Although identifying information is valuable in settlements, medical records often add the most value to a data breach settlement because they contain deeply personal information. For example, the breach of Advocate Health Care included unencrypted medical records, affecting 4.03 million patients. The case settled for $5.55 million, remaining the largest HIPAA settlement to date. This case exemplifies the need to keep up with the swiftly-evolving digital landscape to protect clients’ information. It may also demonstrate legislative attention to particularly personal and sensitive data. Due to the variation and uniqueness of each data breach case, it is important to evaluate the types of compromised data.

Identify Theft Also Important Factor

Generally, cases with elements identity theft will be stronger because it is difficult to prove standing without it. Some jurisdictions require the plaintiff to have suffered from identity theft to have standing. It can be difficult to prove that the hacker had malicious intention and/or sold the data they stole, and until they do sell it, some jurisdictions will not give the class standing. For large data breach cases, such as the T.J Maxx settlement, the plaintiff’s attorneys must be prepared to litigate the case under the standing rules of the federal court in any district because many cases filed all over the country can be consolidated into one federal district court for multidistrict litigation.

The value of data breach cases does not only include the monetary value of the breach. Protection against future losses, such as improved digital security and credit monitoring, are important to preventing identity theft and ensuring the affected company isn’t breached again. It can be beneficial to the plaintiff if the company at fault had a previous breach and did not take proper measures to increase their security.

What Happened After the Breach?

Before initiating a case, it is valuable to research what a company has already done after experiencing a breach. Oftentimes, the company will offer one-year free credit-monitoring for customers who experience ongoing credit risk. While credit-monitoring is helpful for preventing a breach, some companies may only monitor one of the three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) to keep costs low, leaving customers vulnerable to fraudulent activity that shows up on other bureau’s credit reports.

Researching if the company bulked up its security after a breach is also useful. It can be difficult to find exactly what the company did in the aftermath because the discovery may not be accessible. Cybersecurity blogs can come in handy to get technical details of how the hacker was able to get into the company’s system in the first place and learn what, if anything, the company did to improve security. If there is a lot of room for security or credit-monitoring improvement, the value of the settlement may be greater, however the court can enforce this by either raising the dollar value of the settlement or mandating the company increases security. For example, after the Target data breach, which affected 41 million customers, the settlement required Target to employ a chief officer who manages security, to actively monitor its systems for security events, provide security training to its employees for five years, and perform routine security assessments. The case settled for $18.5 million, but the injunctive relief was much greater.

Third Party Vendors Can Play Role

Determining if the company or a third-party vendor is at fault for the breach can be challenging. The company experiencing the data breach often claims they have the most up-to-date security systems, however discovery usually reveals gaps that the hackers used to get in and out with the data. If a third-party could be responsible, it would be best to establish the relationship between the company and the vendor as soon as possible and determine if the vendor is primarily responsible for the breach.

An example where the vendor was unmistakably at fault is the case of the Stanford Hospital data breach. The hospital’s business associate (BA), Multi-Specialty Collection Services, LLC, posted 20,000 patients’ emergency room records, including hospital account numbers, billing charges, and emergency room admission and discharge dates, to a student homework website asking how to graph the patients’ data. Stanford Hospital properly encrypted the records before sending them to the vendor, but they were still responsible for paying the administration costs of the $4 million settlement. The hospital also agreed to train its vendors on how to most effectively protect patient data. Since vendors are typically smaller entities, they likely have fewer resources, and this could affect the settlement amount.

Carbon Monoxide – An Often Silent Killer

Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning causes more than 20,000 emergency room visits and 400 deaths each year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas, making it difficult to detect and therefore difficult to prove as the culprit in countless CO poisoning cases. Many injuries and deaths can be avoided if proper precautions are taken, such as installing CO detectors and designing products to minimize the risk of CO exposure. Despite CO’s deadly effects, it seems the government has done little to recognize the issue as a serious one,  while the automobile and manufacturing industries have barely acted to fix the problem at all.

Sources and Effects of CO Poisoning

The matter of CO poisoning warrants greater attention and awareness, especially after being responsible for so many deaths, like the deaths of Rodney Eric Todd and his seven children. They were all killed from accidental CO poisoning. The carbon monoxide was leaking from a gas generator inside the house that ran out of fuel but was still turned on. While this sounds like an improbable way for eight people to die, CO is known as the silent killer. Perhaps if there were clearer warnings about the dangers of keeping gas generators inside, Todd’s family would still be alive.

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of many different products such as fuel-burning cars, household appliances, and business operations making CO poisoning possible from many different sources. The estimated annual societal cost of this poisoning is about 1.3 billion dollars based on the medical expenses and lost wages of those affected. Since the compound is commonplace, greater awareness of its effects would decrease the social burden and inadvertent deaths.

Oftentimes it can be difficult to recognize CO poisoning for its flu-like symptoms. Doctors are susceptible to misdiagnosing and improperly treating patients. Symptoms can include headache, dizziness, chest pain, vomiting, and confusion, and even loss of consciousness. One of the most commonly reported conditions is brain damage, caused by the deprivation of oxygen to the tissue and brain as CO binds to hemoglobin in the blood and spreads through the body. There is no cure for CO-related brain injuries, however there are several ways to treat patients. Treatments include cognitive and vocational rehabilitation and hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which is breathing pure oxygen in a chamber with higher-than-normal air pressure. The latter is typically used for severe cases of CO poisoning; it replaces the CO in your bloodstream faster than simply breathing fresh air. The severity of the symptoms depends on the duration of exposure, level of CO, and height and weight of the individual.

CO Poisoning Cases Are Complicated

CO poisoning

Hyperbaric oxygen chambers like this one are sometimes used to treat victims of severe carbon monoxide poisoning.

The wide range of CO sources and the many variables that can affect CO poisoning provides a challenge to the plaintiffs in these cases because they need to prove the source of the CO, establish the cause of harmful exposure, and demonstrate the medical connection between the exposure and injuries. To gather this evidence, many types of expert analyses may be necessary, such as physicians, engineers, medical experts, and a variety of others. A different set of experts are needed to substantiate the effects CO has on the body, including cardiologists, neurologists, toxicologists, and others. Proving damages from CO poisoning is expensive for plaintiffs and results in some difficult obstacles. Another pitfall of these cases are negligence claims based on failure to install a CO detector alarm in the first place. These alarms are an easy way to prevent injury from CO. Unfortunately, CO alarms are only mandated in private domiciles by twenty-seven states via state statute and only five states require them in school buildings. More state laws requiring installation of CO alarms would help to reduce the number of CO poisoning cases.

The type of defendant also changes the way CO poisoning cases are handled. Defendants can range from property owners to hotels and restaurants to appliance repair providers. In the case of property owners, it is vital that they complete preventative maintenance and inspections to determine possible hazards before they occur. If they do not do this, it can constitute a breach of applicable duty of care. There are also various codes that apply in different situations, such as International Fire Codes, International Building Codes, and International Mechanical Codes, as well as standards such as the American National Standards. All of these codes add different layers to defending CO poisoning cases.

Determining the amount of CO in the air that is permissible can also be a contentious issue that often impedes litigation. Governmental agencies and associations have differing opinions. For example, the Occupational Safety Health Administration sets the exposure limit for the workplace at fifty parts per million as a time-weighted-average over an eight-hour period. The recommended exposure limit from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is thirty-five parts per million as a time-weighted average over an eight-hour period. In living spaces, the permissible exposure limit is nine parts per million with the desired level to be zero according to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers. These varying numbers suggests that the amount of CO in the air can vary on a case-by-case basis, although the ideal rate is zero parts per million.

Proliferation of Keyless Ignitions in Automobile Industry Presents New Challenges

There are separate challenges presented by keyless ignition cases, which are an excellent example of the automobile industry’s lack of recognition on the issue of CO poisoning. While push-to-start features and smart keys are a technological advantage, they can lead to cars being unintentionally left on after the driver leaves the vehicle. The longer the car is left on, the more harmful exhaust full of CO is released, which can then travel from the garage into the house and harm unsuspecting families, especially if the car is left on overnight. These cars are designed to start when the key fob is nearby, however the fob can be taken away and the car will remain on. While this is a safety problem, automakers have failed to publicize this problem and will continue to promote these cars because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is not acting.

All of the above-mentioned complications of CO poisoning result in costly and complex litigation. Each case entails a unique set of requirements and must be approached with individual manner. More accidental deaths will continue to happen, and they will require more persistent advocates to get the attention and care their cases require unless awareness of CO poisoning is more widely spread.

Addicts Not Only Ones Paying Price of Opioid Epidemic

One trillion dollars. That’s how much the country spent on the opioid epidemic between 2001 and 2017, according to a report released by the nonprofit institute Altarum, a consulting group focused on improving public health.

The cost of the crisis trickles both up and down and impacts corporations, governments and insurance companies, as well as families, local businesses and neighborhoods.

“The greatest cost comes from lost earnings and productivity from overdose deaths – estimated at $800,000 per person based on an average age of 41 among overdose victims,” the report states. “This figure is largely made up of lost wages of workers and productivity losses of employers, but it also weighs on government in the form of lost tax revenue. It has increased in recent years as the epidemic has transitioned away from older people to younger ones and from prescription opioids to illicit drugs.”

Opioid Epidemic Results in High Costs to Society

More than 42,000 deaths were caused by opioid overdoses in 2016, according to the U.S. surgeon general’s office. In 2010, the death toll was 21,000. The startling spike spurred the office to take action, with Dr. Jerome Adams issuing an advisory: “Be prepared. Get naloxone. Save a life.” Naloxone is an easily administered nasal spray that quickly reverses the deadly symptoms of an overdose.

“Health care costs related to the opioid crisis reached $215.7 billion from 2001 to 2017,” the report states. “This stemmed largely from emergency room visits to treat and stabilize patients after an overdose, any associated ambulance and Naloxone use required, and related indirect health care costs associated with the increased risk of other diseases or complications.”
And the costs have nowhere to go but up.

“An additional $500 billion is estimated through 2020 if current conditions persist,” the report states.

opioid epidemic

Governing magazine, a nonpartisan news outfit, reports that Middletown, Ohio, spent $1 million-plus on ambulance dispatches for overdoses between October 2016 and October 2017. It also reports that Pennsylvania will spend $5 million this year on naloxone alone. In Nebraska, the epidemic costs $465 per resident. In West Virginia, it costs $4,793 per resident.  The state has one of the highest rates of opioid overdoses in the country.

“The costs build up slowly over time, so you almost don’t even notice it,” Nashville lawyer Mark Chalos told the magazine in an article titled “How Much Is the Opioid Crisis Costing Governments?” “But when our people really started to dig into the budgets, they realized the costs are more significant.”

Geographic Factors in Opioid Epidemic

The American Enterprise Institute, a public-policy think tank, conducted a study on “The Geographic Variation in the Cost of the Opioid Crisis” and found the costs of the opioid epidemic are disproportionate at state and local levels, as exemplified by the Nebraska / West Virginia comparison.

“The types of costs attributable to opioid abuse – health care costs, criminal justice costs, and lost productivity, for example – are fairly well understood, as is the economic impact of the crisis at the national level,” the study states. “However, the economic burden of the opioid epidemic is unevenly distributed across the country, with many communities especially hard hit. As federal, state, and local policymakers and stakeholders seek to curb the epidemic, it is vitally important that they know how these costs are distributed.”

VSL – Value of a Statistical Life – A New Way to Measure Cost of Opioid Epidemic

Enter the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, or CEA. The federal agency compiled a paper in November 2017 that used a metric called the Value of a Statistical Life, or VSL, to gain insight into the costs of the opioid epidemic. The VSL essentially puts a price tag on one’s willingness to lower his or her death risk. It is helpful for shaping policies and programs that reduce fatalities.

“CEA finds that previous estimates of the economic cost of the opioid crisis greatly understate it by undervaluing the most important component of the loss – fatalities resulting from overdoses,” states the executive summary of the paper, titled “The Underestimated Cost of the Opioid Crisis.” “CEA estimates that in 2015, the economic cost of the opioid crisis was $504.0 billion, or 2.8 percent of GDP that year. This is over six times larger than the most recently estimated economic cost of the epidemic.”

The paper states that though this is the first of its kind to be published, it will not be the last.

“A better understanding of the economic causes contributing to the crisis is crucial for evaluating the success of various interventions to combat it,” it concludes. “CEA will conduct further economic analysis of actual and proposed demand- and supply-side interventions; consider the impact of public programs such as Medicare and Medicaid; and explore the important role of medical innovation in combatting the crisis.”

Toxic Chemicals Still Found in Many Common Cosmetics

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) slow and retroactive response to toxic chemicals found in cosmetics is being called into question. In the past year, there have been more protests urging the FDA to ban lead acetate, a compound found in hair dyes. It was banned in Canada and Europe nearly a decade ago for causing toxic levels of lead to build up in the blood, so what is taking the U.S. so long? Part of the reason why harmful chemicals aren’t banned from cosmetic products faster is that the FDA can only regulate products if it receives “reliable information,” as stated in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. Public protests, such as the petitions against lead acetate, are the beginning of the process that incites the FDA to begin research of the chemical, but this research can take years to complete. It is the responsibility of the FDA to find evidence that a certain product is harmful when used as intended because the manufacturer of the product is not required to submit their data. The research necessary to find such evidence takes time to complete. In the meantime, these dangerous chemicals will already have continued to harm many people.

Cosmetic Industry Also at Fault

The FDA’s response to toxic chemicals in cosmetics is not the only issue; there is no regulation of chemicals before the cosmetic products go to market. A company does not have to perform particular tests on products containing new chemicals, nor is it mandatory for the companies to publicize safety data they collect. Lack of accountability has allowed cosmetic manufacturers to use chemicals in everyday items, such as shampoo and toothpaste. Some cosmetics can contain formaldehyde, a byproduct of some preservatives put into cosmetics. The chemical is commonly used as a preservative for dead animal parts, such as the frog you may have dissected in science class. Formaldehyde was declared a human carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program at the Department of Human Health and Services in 2011 because it can cause cancers of the nasal cavity, myeloid leukemia, and rare cancers. About one fifth of cosmetics contain formaldehyde, a scarily high percentage.

Preventative Measures Are Ready For Congressional Passage

toxic chemicals cosmetics

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s “Woman at her toilette”

Consumers should not have to worry about using cosmetics which may have toxic effects on their bodies. One preventive measure the U.S. could enact is to ban chemicals based on preliminary toxicity data rather than the exhaustive data and research that is required. The Personal Care Products Safety Act is a piece of legislation recently introduced in Congress by Senator Dianne Feinstein which may help solve the problem. If passed, the bill will give the FDA the authority to take products off of store shelves immediately after receiving any reports of customers experiencing bad reactions. This will help close the gap between initial complaints and the years it takes the FDA to gather information before banning the chemical. Furthermore, the bill includes the mandate that manufacturers register their facilities and pay a fee to the FDA. The money will be used to determine the safety of at least five cosmetic ingredients a year. This preventative measure will help eliminate the inefficient process of removing harmful products from store shelves after they have gone to market.

While passage of this bill would be an excellent start to solving the problem, the FDA must enforce more thorough regulation of cosmetic products all around. Unfortunately, the laws on regulation of cosmetics do not require FDA approval before being put on the market, apart from color additives. The administration advises the manufacturers to consult available toxicological test data and perform any additional tests necessary to ensure the safety of the product. However the FDA has no legal jurisdiction to ban a product unless a law has been broken, such as the misbranding of a product. Implementing stricter regulations on companies will bring more peace of mind to consumers who should not have to worry about the toxicity of their cosmetics in the first place.

United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation – March Hearing Preview

The next hearing session of the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (“JPML”) is scheduled for March 29, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia.  Ten matters are set for oral argument to consider motions to transfer each to one centralized district for coordinated pretrial proceedings, covering a variety of hot topics. The hearing session will cover two data breach matters, a bitcoin exchange issue, and two patent litigation consolidation requests.

Overview of January 2018 Hearing Session

Following the January 25, 2018 hearing session in Miami, Florida, the JPML issued transfer orders centralizing cases and creating new Multidistrict Litigation (“MDL”) in seven out of the thirteen new petitions:

  • MDL No. 2809 – In Re: Onglyza (Sexagliptin) and Kombiglyze XR (Saxagliptin and Metformin) Products Liability Litigation (Transferred to the Honorable Karen K. Caldwell, Eastern District of Kentucky)
  • MDL No. 2814 – In Re: Ford Motor Co. DPS6 Powershift Transmission Products Liability Litigation (Transferred to the Honorable André Birotte, Jr., Central District of California)
  • MDL No. 2816 – In Re: Sorin Heater-Cooler System Products Liability Litigation (No. II) (Transferred to the Honorable John E. Jones, III, Middle District of Pennsylvania)
  • MDL No. 2817 – In Re: Dealer Management Systems Antitrust Litigation (Transferred to the Honorable Amy J. St. Eve, Northern District of Illinois)
  • MDL No. 2818 – In Re: General Motors Air Conditioning Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation (Transferred to the Honorable Matthew F. Leitman, Eastern District of Michigan)
  • MDL No. 2819 – In Re: Restasis (Cyclosporine Opthalmic Emulsion) Antitrust Litigation (Transferred to the Honorable Nina Gershon, Eastern District of New York)
  • MDL No. 2820 – In Re: Dicamba Herbicides Litigation (Transferred to the Honorable Stephen N. Limbaugh, Jr., Eastern District of Missouri)

Matters Set for Oral Argument

The following matters are scheduled for oral argument during the March 29 hearing session:

  • MDL No. 2822 – In Re: First Databank Prescription Information Litigation
  • MDL No. 2824 – In Re: Gold King Mine Release in San Juan City, Colorado, on August 5, 2015
  • MDL No. 2825 – In Re: Alteryx, Inc., Customer Data Security Breach Litigation
  • MDL No. 2826 – In Re: Uber Technologies, Inc., Data Security Breach Litigation
  • MDL No. 2827 – In Re: Apple Inc. Device Performance Litigation

The former Bitcoin exchange called Mt. Gox is the subject of a pending consolidation motion.

  • MDL No. 2828 – In Re: Intel Corp. CPU Marketing Sales Practices and Products Liability Litigation
  • MDL No. 2829 – In Re: Mt. Gox Bitcoin Exchange Litigation
  • MDL No. 2830 – In Re: Uniloc USA, Inc., and Uniloc Luxembourg, S.A., HPE Portfolio Patent Litigation
  • MDL No. 2831 – In Re: AM Retail Group, Inc., Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and Wage and Hour Litigation
  • MDL No. 2832 – In Re: Liquid Toppings Dispensing System (‘447) Patent Litigation

Notable Motions to Transfer

MDL No. 2827 – In Re: Apple Inc. Device Performance Litigation. A class action plaintiff in the Northern District of California filed for transfer of actions across the country against Apple, Inc. The petition for transfer states that the actions sought to be consolidated and coordinated all deal with Apple “throttling” the performance of older model iPhones following the release of the iOS 10.2.1 operating system. The “throttling” allegedly involved automatically slowing down iPhone system performance to use less energy and conserve battery when the OS detected a battery that was not working well. The lawsuits allege that Apple failed to inform consumers that it was purposefully slowing down its devices, or to provide a promised fix to the problem; ultimately, the lawsuits claim consumers were denied the opportunity to make an informed decision about whether to buy a new iPhone or a much less expensive replacement battery.

MDL No. 2832 – In Re: Liquid Toppings Dispensing System (‘447) Patent Litigation. One of two proposed patent litigation MDLs set for argument during this session, this matter involves defendants’ request to transfer over twelve actions involving competing franchises that offer frozen treats and flavored, shaved ice from specially-designed trucks to one MDL.  Kona Ice, Inc. advertises that its trucks are “entertainment vehicles” whose best feature is the “Flavorwave,” a row of self-service taps that dispense flavors that go over shaved ice. Kona Ice, Inc. filed several lawsuits in September 2017 against franchisees of Tikiz Franchising, LLC alleging infringement of its patent related to the design of the Kona Ice truck.

MDL No. 2826 – In Re: Uber Technologies, Inc., Data Security Breach Litigation. Data breach litigation continues trending in MDL requests; here, two plaintiffs move for transfer of litigation over the Uber Technologies, Inc. data breach to the Northern District of California. As of the day prior to the March hearing session, the proposed MDL had 21 associated actions – at least twelve of which are putative class action lawsuits. Plaintiffs allege that Uber and other defendants violated state consumer protection statutes, breached express and implied contracts as well as its fiduciary duties and covenants of duty to act in good faith and fair dealing by failing to protect the private information of its 57 million customers and drivers. Even more egregious are allegations that Uber engaged in efforts to hide the breach and failed to reveal it to the public until 2017.

Sorin Stöckert 3T Heater-Cooler Bacteria Lawsuits Coordinated in Pennsylvania

On February 1, 2018, lawsuits filed in federal district courts around the country against Sorin Group USA, Inc., Sorin Deutschland GmbH, and LivaNova PLC began the process of being transferred to Harrisbug, Pennsylvania for coordinated proceedings in an MDL, or multidistrict litigation. Multidistrict litigation is often utilized to streamline complex cases where many plaintiffs have been injured by a drug, medical device, consumer product, or incident (such as the BP oil spill, hotel fires, airline crashes, etc.).  The Sorin heater-cooler bacteria lawsuits stem from infections allegedly caused by the Sorin Stöckert 3T Heater-Cooler device, a machine that helps regulate a patient’s body temperature during cardiothoracic surgery.

The First Attempt at Coordination Denied in Early 2017

In March 2017, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation held a hearing on the first effort to coordinate then-pending Sorin cases into an MDL. The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation is the group of federal court judges that determine whether multidistrict coordination is necessary.

In the first petition, a group of plaintiffs asked that the cases be re-assigned to a federal judge in South Carolina.  The initial request for coordination included fifteen individual lawsuits filed in South Carolina as well as North Carolina, Iowa, South Dakota, and Pennsylvania.  The Defendants vigorously opposed the establishment of an MDL initially.  They argued that there were too few cases pending, that the parties were already informally coordinating with success, and that the cases were too dissimilar to benefit from coordinated discovery – especially since the Defendants contended that discovery would be focused on the actions of the hospitals and surgeons with regard to their use of the heater-cooler devices in individual surgeries rather than more generic issues focused on the presence of a general defect in the heater-cooler products that were sold around the world.

The Judicial Panel denied the request for coordination in an April 5, 2017 order. The Panel found that the individual federal lawsuits pending around the country were already moving at an acceptable pace and the judges assigned to the fewer than 20 individual lawsuits could coordinate informally and still achieve the desired efficiencies regarding discovery and prosecution of the cases.

It is speculated that the Judicial Panel denied this initial request for coordination due to the relatively small number of cases pending at the time as well as the fact that some of the cases had been pending for quite some time and were quite advanced in pretrial proceedings.  In most instances where the Judicial Panel has granted an MDL and ordered national coordination, there are at least 50 lawsuits pending, and most MDLs involve thousands of individual lawsuits.

Following denial of the MDL petition in April, plaintiffs’ lawyers around the country continued to work together to engage in informal cooperation and the sharing of resources in the hopes of achieving some of the same efficiencies that can be achieved through MDL proceedings without experiencing the delays that are also, unfortunately, part of the MDL process.  In the months that followed, additional individual lawsuits were filed in state and federal courts and trial preparation continued in the filed cases.

New Cases Lead to a Second Petition – and a JPML Change of Heart

stockert 3t heater cooler bacteria

In a surprising turn of events in November 2017, the Defendants filed a motion to establish an MDL and coordinate the litigation.  It is unusual for the Judicial Panel to grant such a motion when they have already denied coordination, but second requests are often made.  In its petition, Sorin and LivaNova noted that it was facing 40 individual lawsuits at that time, including the 26 that were pending at the time of the initial request for coordination plus additional personal injury and wrongful death cases filed involving heater-cooler-induced mycobacterium infections in Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and Tennessee.  Some plaintiffs filed briefs opposing the manufacturers’ coordination request due to concerns that the establishment of an MDL might delay cases that had been pending for several years and were approaching trial dates, while others supported the renewed request. The Judicial Panel heard arguments for and against the motion in late January of 2018.

On February 1, 2018, the Judicial Panel issued an order granting the Defendants’ request.  This order established MDL No. 2816, known as In Re: Sorin 3T Heater-Cooler System Products Liability Litigation (No. II), and transferred all pending federal court cases to Judge John E. Jones, III, a federal court judge in Scranton, Pennsylvania.  Judge Jones was already presiding over other Stöckert 3T cases, including the Whipkey case which should be the first heater-cooler case to be tried before a jury in 2019.  Judge Jones recently held an introductory phone conference with the attorneys involved in the 40 filed cases and is expected to hold some preliminary hearings in the coming weeks.

In addition to the federal court cases, there are also several cases concurrently pending in state court venues, primarily in Pennsylvania, Iowa, and California.  Many of these cases involve local defendants, including the hospitals.  Most of the federal court cases are solely focused on product liability claims against the heater-cooler manufacturers and do not include claims against the hospitals, as it is believed that the hospital and surgical personnel acted appropriately with regard to use and attempts to clean the heater-cooler device given the information that they were provided by the manufacturers as well as the challenges in being able to properly decontaminate the heater-cooler system due to its inherent design defects.

Nontuberculous Mycobacterium (NTM) Infections

Currently, most of the pending cases involve patients who developed M. chimera mycobacterium infections after undergoing a surgical procedure (usually a heart or transplant surgery) where a Stöckert 3T heater-cooler device was utilized.  It is estimated that several hundred thousand patients may have undergone procedures and potentially been exposed to contaminated water that circulates through this medical device.

Over the past 12 months, many hospitals have written to patients to alert them to this potential exposure, although not all hospitals have yet to do so.  It is believed that Sorin has the majority of the market share for heater-cooler device sales in the United States, which is why so many patients were potentially exposed.  The good news is that the actual number of patients that have been diagnosed with confirmed mycobacterium infections suspected to have been caused by contaminated aerosolized water coming from the Stöckert 3T heater-cooler devices is relatively small.

While the reported governmental investigations have focused on the M. chimera mycobacterium, other forms of non-tuberculous mycobacterium infections have been reported in the FDA’s MAUDE database as coming from the Stöckert 3T heater-cooler devices.   These other non-tuberculous mycobacterium infections include but are not limited to, the following:  M. abscessus, M. chelonae, M. fortuitum, M. gordonae, M. intracellulare, and M. kansasii.

In the coming months as the state court and MDL proceedings move into the expert witness discovery phase, more efforts will be focused on identifying the precise species that are non-tuberculous mycobacterium that can be scientifically and legally linked to use of the Sorin 3T heater-cooler devices.