Greed, not justice

A Clark County jury has proved beyond any doubt that the American civil court system is in desperate need of reform.

After awarding more than $5 million in compensatory damages Wednesday in a product liability case, on Friday the jury ordered a pair of drug makers to cough up $500 million in punitive damages.

It would be a staggering sum in a class-action case where the defendant deliberately caused direct harm to scores of plaintiffs. But this was no such case.

It was the first trial to address the valley's hepatitis C outbreak, an inexcusable public health crisis that resulted from intentionally unsafe practices at the now-closed Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada. Clinic employees reused syringes and single-use vials of the sedative propofol on patients undergoing endoscopic procedures, which contaminated the vials of propofol and, in one horrible instance, spread the blood disease from one patient to several others.

The blame for those infections lies with the center's employees and its owner, Dr. Dipak Desai, who cut corners to maximize their earnings at the expense of patient safety. Many people, including Henderson resident Henry Chanin, now 62, were harmed by the endoscopy center.

But the pockets of Desai, his employees and his business run only so deep. So after settling with those parties Mr. Chanin and his attorney, Robert Eglet, went after the deepest ones they could find: Teva Parenteral Medicine and Baxter Healthcare Services, which made and sold the propofol.

Mr. Eglet argued that because the single-use vials of propofol contained more of the sedative than was needed for any endoscopic procedure, the drug makers should have put warning labels on the vials and sold smaller doses to Desai and his group.

Not doing so somehow tempted Desai's employees to abandon infection-control practices taught to first-year medical and nursing students everywhere, the argument went.

The jury bought it and decided Mr. Chanin and his wife, Lorraine, should receive compensation for the drug makers' lack of instruction in basic medicine.

Civil courts are supposed to make harmed parties whole. The criminal system is supposed to punish those who break the law. Teva Parenteral Medicine and Baxter Healthcare Services broke no laws.

And now they're supposed to pay $500 million to one couple? As punishment for the disgusting dereliction of one medical practice?

Mr. Eglet had urged the jury to award his clients $1 billion in punitive damages. Numbers such as these have no nexus to reality. They are arbitrary in the least, preposterous at most. And they rarely stand through appeals.

They represent greed, not justice.

The lawsuit lottery has produced another big winner. But jurors never seem to consider that their huge numbers are never imposed solely on defendants.

No, those costs are shared by everyone, including the jurors themselves, through higher costs on goods and services. This particular case -- and the outbreak-related trials that will follow it -- certainly will have the effect of making health care more expensive.