Local News

Suit alleges cover-up in tainted surgical instrument case

Posted June 19, 2008 1:57 p.m. EDT
Updated June 19, 2008 8:39 p.m. EDT

— As one suit over tainted surgical equipment at Duke University Health System hospitals was settled, a second one was filed this week, alleging the hospitals and their suppliers conspired to cover up their mistakes.

About 3,800 surgical patients at Durham Regional Hospital and Duke Health Raleigh Hospital were exposed in late 2004 to instruments that had been washed with used hydraulic fluid. The fluid had been drained from hospital elevators and put in empty detergent drums, then was mistakenly shipped back to the hospitals.

Dozens of patients said they suffered health problems ranging from infections to immune system reactions after the exposure.

Duke Health officials have maintained the instruments were safe because they were sterilized after being washed in the hydraulic fluid.

The hospital system reached a settlement this week with an undisclosed number of patients over the mix-up. Terms of the agreement were not disclosed.

Still, some patients continue to allege that Duke Health tried to cover up the hydraulic fluid mix-up.

Sixty-seven patients on Tuesday sued Steris Corp. and Cardinal Health, which supplied Duke hospitals with sterilization equipment, and several Cardinal employees, alleging negligence, deceptive trade practices, obstruction of justice and a conspiracy.

"We were able to reach a settlement with Duke," said Thomas Henson, a lawyer for the patients. "Our clients are depending on us to hold the remaining defendants ... fully accountable for their conduct in exposing hundreds of patients to extremely dangerous material in a health-care and operating-room setting."

Duke Health wasn't named as a defendant in the new lawsuit, so Duke officials declined to comment on it. Representatives with Steris and Cardinal also declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

The lawsuit alleges that the hospital system agreed with the two companies to minimize their liability in the case by sharing costs for testing the instruments, using a lab with ties to Duke to conduct the tests, destroying evidence of contaminated instruments and stonewalling requests from patients for more information.

"Cardinal, Steris and Duke University Health System Inc.’s collective responses to inquiries by and on behalf of patients were evasive, deceptive and misleading," the suit states.

Duke Health also misled ExxonMobil, the manufacturer of the hydraulic fluid, about the case when asking for a chemical breakdown of the fluid, the suit alleged.

ExxonMobil officials said in 2005 that they would have disclosed proprietary additives in the fluid to patients and their physicians if Duke Health officials had told the company of the extent of the exposure.

The suit also alleges that Duke Health officials asked the state Department of Labor to suppress its findings after an investigation of the case.

Labor officials were unable to comment Thursday on the allegation.

The suit also alleges that Cardinal workers didn't check the detergent drums before delivering them to the two hospitals and that Steris workers ignored complaints of greasy surgical instruments and never checked the hospitals' sterilization equipment. Both actions violated the respective companies' policies, according to the suit.