A recent report and recommendation from a US Magistrate Judge raises the question: Does a group of patients who were exposed to pathogens but never developed a disease have a cause of action?
In Descoteau v. Analogic Corp., 2010 WL 325933 (D. Me. Jan. 21, 2010), Magistrate Judge John Rich III suggests that they do, although he clearly seems to stretch Maine law in order to find a cause of action for a bad factual situation. If this report and recommendation is affirmed by the District Court, it will not be the first time hard facts have made bad law.
The facts are not pretty. Plaintiff is one of some 23,000 veterans who were potentially exposed to HIV, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and other bloodborne viral pathogens when they underwent diagnostic procedures and biopsies at VA hospitals using a rectal probe made by the defendants. Both the operation manual for the rectal probe -- as well as the oral instructions from the device representative who demonstrated it at the VA hospital that treated plaintiff -- indicated that the probe could be cleaned by flushing it with a syringe full of detergent and water. Years after the hospital bought and began using the defendants' rectal probe, the hospital's staff discovered that blood and fecal matter remained in the probe even after it had been cleaned according to the manufacturer's instructions -- without using a brush. The VA conducted a systemwide review and notified some 23,000 veterans nationwide of the potential exposure and their need to receive testing for bloodborne pathogens and disease. Plaintiff received his notice on April 14, 2006, was tested on April 27, 2006, and was notified that fortunately his test results were negative on May 11, 2006. Plaintiff sued on behalf of a class of 528 veterans who were potentially exposed to bloodborne pathogens at the Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta, Maine, asserting causes of action for strict liability and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
The defendants moved to dismiss, asserting Maine's 6-year statute of limitations, arguing that plaintiff's original diagnostic procedure occurred more than six years prior to his filing suit. The Magistrate Judge easily dispatched of that challenge, holding that plaintiff's cause of action for emotional distress did not accrue until he was notified in 2006 that he might be infected. Thus, the suit was well within the statute of limitations.
Defendants also moved to dismiss the strict liability count, citing the language of Maine's strict liability statute, which provides:
One who sells any goods or products in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer or to his property is subject to liability for physical harm thereby caused to a person whom the manufacturer, seller, or supplier might reasonably have expected to use, consume or be affected by the goods, or to his property, if the seller is engaged in the business of selling such a product and it is expected to and does reach the user or consumer without significant change in the condition in which it was sold.
Id. at *5 (quoting statute).
The defendant argued that a prerequisite to a strict liability claim is physical harm or impairment, and that plaintiff -- who contracted no disease and suffered no impairment -- thus could not bring a claim. Plaintiff argued, however, that the needle stick required for the HIV and Hepatitis testing qualified as "physical harm" sufficient to support a strict liability claim. The court -- striving to find a cause of action for an obviously-inconvenienced plaintiff -- bought the argument, observing that "[t]he defendants cite no authority in support of the proposition that a needle stick or blood draw constitutes insufficient physical harm, as a matter of law, to support a strict liability claim, and I find none." Id.
But the rule of strict liability is not available for all types of harm; rather, it is reserved for physical injury and damage to property. The Restatement defines physical injury as a "detrimental change in the physical condition of a person's body." Id. at n.4. The court's stretching of the definition of physical injury to encompass a subsequent needle stick effectively reads the physical injury element out of the statute. Nevertheless, the court recommended that the strict liability claim should survive the motion to dismiss.
The defendants also moved to dismiss the negligent infliction of emotional distress ("NIED") claim. The court began by opining that the plaintiff had sufficiently alleged a count for negligence for physical injury (i.e., the needle stick). But as for emotional distress, the court was bound by Maine precedent that reserves the cause of action for defendants who are in a special relationship with the plaintiff. Maine courts have found such special relationships in very limited circumstances (e.g., doctor-patient, counselor-patient, hospital-decedent's family). Id. at *6. The court held that because its research had not uncovered an instance where the Maine courts had found a special relationship between a manufacturer and an end user, the NIED claim must be dismissed.
It remains to be seen whether the District Court will adopt the report and recommendation in Descoteau, which effectively reads the physical injury requirement out of Maine's strict liability statute and thereby would impose upon manufacturers strict liability for purely emotional harm. Even if it did, however, it is difficult to fathom how 528 people's emotional harm could be adjudicated on a classwide basis consistent with the requirements of Rule 23.