NASHVILLE, Tenn.Dennis O'Brien rubs his head as he details ailments triggered by the fungal meningitis he developed after a series of steroid shots in his neck: nausea, vomiting, dizziness, drowsiness, blurred vision, exhaustion and trouble with his speech and attention.
He estimates the disease has cost him and his wife thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses and her lost wages, including time spent on 6-hour round trip weekly visits to the hospital. They've filed a lawsuit seeking $4 million in damages from the Massachusetts pharmacy that supplied the steroid injections, but it could take years for them to get any money back and they may never get enough to cover their expenses. The same is true for dozens of others who have sued the New England Compounding Center.
"I don't have a life anymore. My life is a meningitis life," the 59-year-old former school teacher said, adding that he's grateful he survived.
His is one of at least 50 federal lawsuits in nine states that have been filed against NECC, and more are being filed in state courts every day. More than 500 people have gotten sick after receiving injections prepared by the pharmacy.
The lawsuits allege that NECC negligently produced a defective and dangerous product and seek millions to repay families for the death of spouses, physically painful recoveries, lost wages and mental and emotional suffering. Thirty-seven people have died in the outbreak.
"The truth is the chance of recovering damages from NECC is extremely low," said John Day, a Nashville attorney who represents several patients who have been sickened by fungal meningitis.
To streamline the process, attorneys on both sides are asking to have a single judge preside over the pretrial and discovery phases for all of the federal lawsuits.
This approach, called multidistrict litigation, would prevent inconsistent pretrial rulings and conserve resources of all parties. But unlike a class-action case, those lawsuits would eventually be returned to judges in their original district for trial, according to Brian Fitzpatrick, a law professor at Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville.
Even with this approach, Fitzpatrick noted that federal litigation is very slow, and gathering all the evidence, records and depositions during the discovery phase could take months or years.
"Most of the time what happens is once they are consolidated for pretrial proceedings, there is a settlement, a global settlement between all the lawyers and the defendants before anything is shipped back for trial," he said.
A lawyer representing NECC, Frederick H. Fern, described the consolidation process as an important step.
"A Boston venue is probably the best scenario," Fern said in an email. "That's where the parties, witnesses and documents are located, and where the acts subject to these complaints occurred."