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Bair Hugger Infection Lawsuits Centralized in MDL for Pretrial Proceedings

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The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) has decided to consolidate all Bair Hugger infection lawsuits filed against 3M Company and its Arizant Healthcare subsidiary before one judge, centralizing all cases involving allegations that the forced-air warming blanket increases the risk of hip and knee infections following orthopedic joint surgery.

There are currently several dozen hip infection lawsuits and knee infection lawsuits pending in U.S. District Courts nationwide, which each involve nearly identical allegations that a Bair Hugger warming blanket used during joint replacement surgery caused contaminants from the operating room floor to enter the sterile surgical field.

In addition, as hip and knee replacement lawyers continue to review claims for individuals who suffered a deep joint infection, it is ultimately expected that hundreds, if not thousands, of complaints will be brought throughout the federal court system.

According to a transfer order (PDF) issued by the U.S. JPML on December 11, the cases will all be centralized for coordinated pretrial proceedings before U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen in the District of Minnesota, as part of an MDL or Multi-District Litigation.

Each of the complaints allege that the design of the Bair Hugger forced-air warming system is unreasonably dangerous and defective, contaminating the sterile surgical field around the open wound and increasing the infection risk.

Although 3M Company opposed creation of a Bair Hugger MDL during oral arguments presented earlier this month, the U.S. JPML determined that sufficiently similar questions of fact and law are involved in the lawsuits to justify centralizing the cases before one judge to reduce the risk of duplicative discovery, avoid contradictory pretrial rulings from different courts and to serve the convenience of the parties, witnesses and the courts.

“The actions share factual issues arising from allegations that plaintiffs developed serious infections during their orthopedic surgeries due to the introduction of contaminants into their open wounds as a result of the use of a Bair Hugger Forced Air Warming System,” wrote Judge Sarah S. Vance, Chair of the U.S. JPML, in the order issued late last week. “Specifically, plaintiffs allege that the device is defective in at least two respects: (1) the device affects airflow in the operating room, causing bacteria from the operating room floor to be deposited into the surgical site; and (2) the internal airflow paths of the device’s blower can become contaminated with pathogens that can then be expelled into the operating room.”

Plaintiffs point to studies that indicate use of forced air warming blankets cause substantial increases in the number of particles in the air near a surgical wound and higher rates of knee or hip infections following joint replacement surgery.

There are more than 50,000 Bair Hugger warming blankets in hospitals nationwide, and the devices have been used on millions of patients. The lawsuits claim that the manufacturer has known about the hip and knee surgical infection risk for years, yet failed to make design changes or provide warnings to the medical community.

As part of any coordinated pretrial proceedings before Judge Ericksen, it is expected that a small group of cases will be prepared for early trial dates. Known as “bellwether” cases, the outcomes are designed to help the parties gauge how juries may respond to certain evidence and testimony that may be repeated throughout the litigation, potentially promote settlement negotiations to resolve cases brought by individuals who have experienced problems.

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