Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 28, 2013

Area attorney applauds fund for meningitis victims

BY ANNE STANTON
astanton@record-eagle.com

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — A Traverse City attorney who represents dozens of clients who have suffered or died from tainted steroid injections welcomed the announcement of a $100 million-plus fund to compensate victims.

“I am encouraged by how quickly this came out,” said Traverse City attorney Mark Dancer.

Dancer said the issue has never been a matter of culpability or negligence, but one of “collectibility” — whether there would ever be enough money to adequately compensate victims, including several in the Grand Traverse region.

“There was so much harm done, so many deaths and serious illnesses. One hundred million dollars sounds like a lot until you start carving it up with all the carnage that was out there,” he said.

About 750 people developed fungal meningitis, an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord, or other infections; 64 have died. The patients received an epidural drug injection to relieve back and joint pain from a lot compounded in 2012, according to a court filing.

The New England Compounding Center, based just west of Boston, made the steroid drug in a facility found to contain visible mold and standing water. The company gave up its license and filed for bankruptcy protection soon after it was flooded with hundreds of lawsuits.

Dancer and Daniel Myers of Dingeman, Dancer & Christopherson represent about 80 clients whose injuries range from minor harm to two deaths. The prescribed anti-fungal medicine also caused serious side effects, including hallucinations, Myers said.

“Some don’t know if this poison is still in their system. A number have been hospitalized for weeks and months with infections,” Myers said.

Victims have until Jan. 15 to file claims; settlements will be administered by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Myers said.

The preliminary settlement would set up a victim compensation fund worth more than $100 million and could grow significantly over the coming months, said attorney William Baldiga, who announced the settlement Monday.

The Traverse City law firm filed lawsuits on behalf of its clients against teh steroid maker and affiliated companies. It recently filed a lawsuit against Neuromuscular and Rehabilitation Associates of Northern Michigan, where tainted steroid medicine unknowingly was injected into patients.

The steroid medicine is a compound drug, a category not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Michigan law requires compound drugs to be purchased, packaged, dispensed and labeled for a specific individual. But the steroid maker acted outside its license by producing and distributing the steroid drug in bulk, Dancer said.

“(Neuromuscular and Rehabilitation) is not the worst offender here,” Myers said. “The company in Massachusetts did the most harm. But I do think there were failures all along the chain. People weren’t doing their due diligence without bothering to look too hard. Unfortunately, this is what happens.”

Tim Dardas, an East Lansing attorney who represents Neuromuscular and Rehabilitation, said he’ll provide a response in court.

“I think we’re in a good position to do that at that time,” Dardas said.

Baldiga said the victims’ fund agreement needs a bankruptcy judge’s approval and likely will be filed in the next few weeks.

A federal investigation of the company started more than a year ago but hasn’t resulted in any criminal charges. The company’s owners said in a press release announcing the settlement that they deny any liability or wrongdoing but want to play a major role in establishing a fund for people who died or suffered.

The initial $100 million will come from cash contributions by company owners and proceeds from insurance, tax refunds and the sale of a related business.

Baldiga called it “an important step, but a first step only.”

The ASSOCIATED PRESS contributed to this report.