November 28, 2012 — U.S. District Judge Dennis Saylor will allow at least 70 civil lawsuits to proceed against New England Compounding Center (NECC), the compounding pharmacy accused of distributing contaminated steroid shots linked to a massive outbreak of fungal meningitis. Attorneys for NECC argued that the civil lawsuits should be delayed until next year, when a federal panel of judges is scheduled to decide whether to centralize the litigation in one federal court. Judge Saylor disagreed, saying “I don’t want two or three or four months to go by with nothing happening.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the outbreak of fungal meningitis has caused at least 500 people to become ill, of whom 36 have died. Although NECC recalled all of their medicines at the beginning of October, meningitis and local infections have an incubation period of several weeks. New cases of meningitis have abated, but new fungal infections are still being reported.
NECC could potentially face thousands of lawsuits on behalf of people who were sickened or died in the outbreak. Thousands more people required painful, invasive spinal taps to check for fungal infections.
Most of the 70 pending civil lawsuits have been filed in Tennessee, Michigan, Minnesota. Many lawsuits have also been filed in Massachusetts, where NECC is located.
It is possible that the owners of the pharmacy will face federal criminal charges in addition to the civil lawsuits. Judge Saylor said, “There may be a grand jury investigation, I don’t know, but there is certainly a potential criminal investigation overlaid on this.” U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz has confirmed that an investigation is ongoing.
Judge Saylor denied a motion to freeze the financial assets of the owners of NECC, but he has prohibited the company from transferring large sums of money or paying the executives large bonuses.