Local News

Judge Rules Patients Can Sue In Hydraulic Fluid Mix-Up

Posted August 8, 2005 6:28 a.m. EDT

— A judge ruled Monday that patients who were accidentally operated on with surgical tools tainted by hydraulic fluid mistakenly used in the cleaning process can sue for pain and suffering.

Lawyers for Automatic Elevator Co. and Cardinal Health wanted to dismiss punitive damages and, in essence, put a cap on the amount of money that may be awarded to effected patients if the cases go to trial.

Attorneys for the two companies involved told the judge that they did not mean to hurt anyone.

"There's no wicked purpose here -- no allegations, no facts to show Cardinal did this with knowledge or intent to injure," said Jitenda Malik, an attorney for Cardinal Health.

The ruling keeps the doors open for at least patients in these two lawsuits to potentially collect tens of thousands of dollars beyond medical bills and lost wages.

Attorneys representing patients involved in the mix-up argued Automatic Elevator and Cardinal Health had a responsibility to the safety of others and neglected that responsibility.

"They deliberately poured over 100 gallons of fluid into 10 to 12 barrels labeled surgical detergent," said attorney Adrew Cioffi.

Last fall, workers with Automatic Elevator poured used hydraulic fluid into empty detergent barrels. Then, the detergent supplier, Cardinal Health, picked up the barrels filled with the hydraulic fluid and redistributed the barrels to other hospitals, including two hospitals affiliated with Duke University Health System.

The fluid was mistakenly used in the cleaning process of surgical instruments used on nearly 4,000 patients at Durham Regional Hospital and Duke Health Raleigh Hospital.

"When Cardinal handles these things several times and delivers them back to Duke and never notices the seals are broken, that's an intentional and conscious disregard," Cioffi said.

Duke Health contends that, despite the mix-up, the instruments were sterile and they believe patients were at low risk for infection. They do, however, admit that they do not know about long-term effects.

So far, Duke Health has not been named in any lawsuit.