In what is believed to be the largest punitive damages award in Nevada history, a jury last week ordered two pharmaceutical companies to pay $500 million to a plaintiff who contracted hepatitis C at a Las Vegas clinic that was found to be reusing medicine vials and dirty needles.
The Las Vegas hepatitis lawsuit was filed by Henry Chanin in the Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nevada. It is the first of about 250 lawsuits related to a hepatitis C outbreak in Las Vegas that centered around two endoscopy centers that were shut down in 2008 by state health officials due to unsafe medical practices. The case went to trial against Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. and Baxter Healthcare Corp., who manufactured and distributed propofol, a generic anesthesia medication that was used at the clinics.
Following a lengthy trial, the jury found that Teva and Baxter were responsible for Chanin’s hepatitis C infection as a result their single dose propofol vials being reused on multiple patients. The jury also found that the drug makers acted recklessly and endangered patients, resulting in a $356 million punitive damage award against Teva and a $144 million punitive damage award against Baxter.
Both Teva and Baxter have said they will appeal the verdict.
Propofol is a short-acting anesthesia medication which is used for sedation during medical procedures, such as colonoscopy and endoscopy, as well as in dental surgery. It is marketed with the brand name Diprivan by AstraZeneca, and it is currently available as a generic from Teva Pharmaceuticals and other manufacturers. There were two propofol recalls issued in 2009; one was issued by Teva due to contaminants that sickened at least 40 people in July, and another in November by Hospira, Inc. due to metal debris found in vials due to poor manufacturing practices.
Chanin’s lawsuit alleged that the design of the 50 mL vials of propofol, and the companies’ marketing practices, encouraged reuse of the vials, putting patients at risk of infection by contaminated blood. This lawsuit and a number of other claims are targeting the pharmaceutical companies since the owners of the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada and Desert Shadow Endoscopy Center, where the outbreaks occurred, only had $3 million in insurance.
In February 2008, health officials shut the clinics down after identifying unsanitary practices at the facility; including reuse of syringes and vials of medication intended for only single-patient use. More than 40,000 former patients were advised by the Southern Nevada Health District to get tested for potentially fatal blood-borne diseases like Hepatitis C or HIV.
Hepatitis C is an infectious disease that can cause liver damage, including liver failure, cirrhosis and liver cancer. It is technically incurable, but very effective treatment has been able to eradicate the disease in some of those who contract it.
Attempts to certify a hepatitis C class-action lawsuit on the basis of emotional distress on behalf of thousands of former patients of the clinic failed in 2008, but more than 250 patients who suspect that they contracted hepatitis C from the clinic have filed individual lawsuits.
In February, a judge approved settlements for 18 hepatitis lawsuits against the clinics themselves for undisclosed amounts paid for by Nevada Mutual Insurance Co., which insured the clinics at the time they were shut down.