Jury selection begins in lawsuit against drugmakers in hepatitis C outbreak

Jury selection began Wednesday in the second product liability trial stemming from the 2007 hepatitis C outbreak at clinics run by Dr. Dipak Desai.

The cases of three former patients -- Richard Sacks, Anne Arnold and Anthony Devito -- are being tried together. All three allege they were infected with the hepatitis C virus through 50 milliliter contaminated vials of the sedative propofol during routine colonoscopies.

The defendants are Teva Parenteral Medicines, SICOR and Baxter Healthcare, the companies that manufactured and distributed the drug. All of the health care professionals settled with the former patients.

Lawyers began questioning prospective jurors about 1 p.m. from a pool of 300 and expect to seat a panel plus alternates next week. Opening statements could start by next Wednesday in the courtroom of District Judge Ron Israel.

In May 2010, Henry Chanin, 63, a private school headmaster infected with the virus at one of Desai's clinics, won a $500 million punitive judgment against the drug companies on product liability claims. The companies have appealed the verdict to the Nevada Supreme Court.

All told, some 250 infected patients, with thousands of others claiming mental distress, have cases against the drug companies. Most of those pleadings focus on the Centers for Disease Control's belief that patients were infected by contamination in propofol vials passed through dirty syringes.

Health officials definitively linked nine hepatitis cases to two of the clinics and said another 106 cases were possibly related to the clinics. The three plaintiffs are not among the nine hepatitis cases definitively linked to the clinics.

The three consolidated cases were allowed to move forward after the Supreme Court last week issued a ruling setting guidelines for the testimony of a key defense witness, nationally known nurse David Hambrick.

The high court said Hambrick is qualified to testify about proper cleaning and sterilization of endoscopic equipment at Desai's clinics but not about the cause of the hepatitis C infections.

The plaintiffs allege that the 50 milliliter propofol vials were not intended for short medical procedures, such as colonoscopies, and that the labels on the vials provided inadequate warnings about the intended use.

But the drug companies contend the infections were more likely the result of dirty scopes, rather than contaminated vials. Desai faces criminal charges because of sloppy procedures at the clinics.

The same lead lawyers in the Chanin case -- Robert Eglet and Will Kemp for the plaintiffs and Mark Tully for the defendants -- are squaring off in this case.

Contact Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-8135.