Mass tort litigation: A hot area for legal nurse consultants

Although mass tort litigation has been around for some time, it was not until the 1980's that most of became familiar with the term. This is mostly due to the high visibility of the large mass Agent Orange tort case that took place in the United States. Since that time, many new cases have emerged in various areas resulting in millions of dollars paid in settlement.

Mass tort is a class of civil action lawsuits in which multiple plaintiffs are harmed by the same product or incident. Legal nurse consultants (LNC's) can gain a large number of these cases and a more consistent workload when assisting attorneys in any of the following areas of mass tort:

  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Medical devices
  • Environmental and/or catastrophic

Large attorney groups tend to practice in at least one of the above areas. If you can develop a good working relationship with an attorney group that handles more than one, you will be well on your way to becoming an LNC expert in this type of litigation.

Thinking about pharmaceutical mass tort litigation, most would recall the famous case involving Fen-phen, an anti-obesity medication that combined the drugs fenluramine and phentermine. The medication was found to cause pulmonary hypertension and major damage to heart valves. Another high profile pharmaceutical case involved Vioxx, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory that increased patient risk for myocardial infarction and stroke. Both settled and paid millions of dollars to the plaintiffs.

Medical devices most recently scrutinized for defects in mass tort litigation are hip replacements and pelvic mesh manufactured by Depuy Orthopaedics, Inc. – cases on which I have had the opportunity to work. These products have caused significant pain and suffering and have required that patients undergo additional surgeries to correct the defects, any of whom continue to experience complications. Other common cases in this type of litigation have involved breast implants, tobacco and birth control products.

Environmental and/or catastrophic mass tort cases usually focus on man-made disasters. The case that immediately comes to my mind is Three Mile Island, in which a partial core nuclear meltdown occurred in 1979, as my home is located nearby. A class action suit drew just more than $25 million dollars for plaintiffs.

Most recently, the BP oil spill is a highly publicized catastrophic case. Airplane crashes would also fall in this category, and there are attorneys who specifically litigate cases involving defective aviation equipment. Other well-known environmental litigation has involved asbestos and mesothelioma, a cancer that affects the lining of the lungs.

In my personal experiences working on the DePuy cases, the attorneys have provided a list of dozens of plaintiffs. My job is to look through the medical records and create a simple report. This report highlights documented cases of device use from physician records and operative reports. It may also include information on patients' preexisting medical conditions, doctors visits in which diagnostic studies revealed symptoms that lead up to surgery, and also post-surgery complications that may have resulted from the defective medical devices.

Most of cases involve computerized records that are available for direct download from the attorney, making it easy for LNC's to provide reports on each individual and further simplifying the expert review process. Be sure to include instances in which the defective device is mentioned, as well as a short summary documenting the onset of complications in relation to when the surgery with the defective device was completed. Any missing records, such as diagnostic tests or operative reports, should also be mentioned.

LNC's can follow the most recent product recalls on the FDA's website. Mass tort cases can keep an LNC extremely busy. Do your homework by researching new recalls and present these potential cases to your attorney clients. Attorneys love to hand over the medical review portion of these cases to LNC experts to present during trial, as it is your job to provide the key pieces of documentation necessary to show a pattern in the defective product.   

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