July 6, 2008

Fluid Mix-Up Spurred Spate of Lawsuits

By John Stevenson, The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C.

Jul. 6--DURHAM -- A high-profile spate of hydraulic-fluid litigation involving Duke University Health System has spun the heads even of savvy court observers, seeping in and out of local judicial machinery almost with the ease of its namesake liquid.

The seemingly endless saga was extended with a new lawsuit just last week.

Through it all, Duke has insisted that more was being made of the issue than is warranted.

The legal ball started rolling in 2005, when B.W. Holland of Lillington claimed he had contracted a severe infection, temporarily lost his kidney and bowel functions and suffered other ailments after undergoing back surgery with instruments accidentally washed in elevator hydraulic fluid rather than detergent.

Holland sued an elevator repair company and the fluid distributor in Durham County Superior Court.

Although he may not have realized it at the time, he paved the way toward a slippery slope of court activity for which no end is in sight.

Dozens of claims followed.

One batch recently was settled for an undisclosed amount of money.

Jurors have yet to hear a single word of the dispute, however.

Until now, everything has transpired behind the scenes, primarily in the offices of various lawyers.

The fluid mix-up occurred in 2004 at Durham Regional Hospital and Raleigh Community Hospital, both part of the Duke Health System.

Dirty used hydraulic fluid allegedly was removed during routine elevator maintenance at the two facilities and poured into receptacles clearly marked as surgical detergent containers. Medical instruments then were immersed in the liquid before being used on patients, lawsuits allege.

Some lawsuits accused the elevator company and detergent distributor of negligently failing to keep track of what they were doing.

DUHS was blasted for allegedly mounting a "willful and wanton effort" to cover up the situation.

Duke moved quickly to reassure patients, promptly telling nearly 4,000 people in letters that they need not be overly alarmed.

Duke next reported that the Research Triangle Institute had found "only a miniscule residual" of hydraulic fluid on the surgical instruments in question.

"More than 18 months have passed since this event; we are thankful that these findings and the evidence we've seen suggest this low exposure was not harmful to our patients," a 2006 Duke statement said.

And last year, a study commissioned by Duke Health found that only 383 of 3,648 patients had serious medical issues after potentially being exposed to hydraulic fluid.

Sixty-seven died.

But since the fluid-exposed persons were generally older and sicker than others, it must be assumed that many would have experienced medical problems anyway, according to Duke.

Meanwhile, Holland -- the first person to sue -- claimed in a February 2007 interview that he wasn't doing well.

"I still have good days and bad days," the then-47-year-old said. "I'm still undergoing treatment. My toxicologist is doing what he can, but I'm petty much disabled."

Attempts to obtain an update from Holland were unsuccessful last week. A recording said his former telephone number was no longer in service.

In one of the latest developments, it was revealed this spring that DUHS had settled the claims of an unspecified number of plaintiffs.

The amount of the settlements was confidential.

Still, the saga continues.

Sixty-seven people began a new lawsuit last month against Cardinal Health of Dublin, Ohio, and Steris Corp. of Mentor, Ohio. The two companies provided surgical cleaning supplies and equipment to DUHS hospitals.

Another 18 plaintiffs sued DUHS on Tuesday, alleging the health system committed fraud and negligence in connection with the fluid mix-up.

Duke has yet to file an official response to the latest court complaint.


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