Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 27, 2013

Mich. AG seeks criminal probe of meningitis deaths

From staff and wire reports
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — LANSING — The state attorney general sought permission to launch a criminal investigation into a Massachusetts pharmaceutical company linked to a deadly outbreak of meningitis, saying Michigan was at the “epicenter” of pain and death in the case.

Bill Schuette on Tuesday filed a request with the Michigan Court of Appeals for a rare, four-county grand jury to conduct a confidential probe into the New England Compounding Center, the company already accused in dozens of civil lawsuits of producing contaminated steroids that killed 51 people nationwide and sickened more than 700.

If the court agrees to an investigation, a jury of citizens in one of the counties would decide if criminal charges should be brought.

“Michigan is at the epicenter of this national meningitis tragedy,” Schuette said during a news conference at his office in Lansing. “We will find the truth and bring to justice those who may have broken the law.”

Grand Traverse County is one of the four counties covered by the grand jury inquiry. Contaminated steroid injections are blamed in the deaths of two Grand Traverse residents. A 73-year-old resident’s death was linked to the injections in February. The death of the second county resident, an 80-year-old, was linked to the injections on March 11.

The number of Michigan residents infected — 259 at last count, 17 who died — is “brutal,” Schuette said.

The Michigan Department of Community Health is not releasing the names of the deceased from Grand Traverse County.

Multiple other northern Michigan residents are believed to be infected from contaminated shots administered to patients at the Traverse City-based medical facility, Neuromuscular and Rehabilitation, which unknowingly received a shipment of contaminated injections. Two area women, Phyllis Briggs, of Interlochen, and Barbara Ann Smoot, of Honor, are suing the medication’s manufacturer, New England Compounding Center, and others.

Traverse City-based attorney Mark Dancer and attorney Daniel Meyers are representing the two women. The attorneys plan to file suit on behalf of at least 34 other victims.

One Traverse City-area woman, Kip Taylor, 82, told the Record-Eagle in February she was hospitalized after receiving a contaminated injection. She said she struggles with speech, motor skills and other basic tasks.

“It’s damn scary,” Taylor said. “It’s not something you want ... I can’t walk. I can’t do anything at all.”

A grand jury can subpoena witnesses and compel testimony under oath, while state investigators do not have that power. Schuette said a grand jury investigation could unlock the “secrecy” surrounding the company’s management, the Michigan facilities where the steroid shots were injected and the identity of specific individuals responsible.

He said it is a crime to knowingly or recklessly sell or manufacturer an adulterated drug and that anyone convicted on that charge could face up to 15 years in prison.

In the petition to the appeals court, the state said there is probable cause to believe that New England Compounding Center distributed tainted drugs to Michigan counties and that it “knew or had reason to know that the adulterated drugs could cause great bodily harm or death.”

A message seeking comment was left Tuesday with a spokesman for the company based in Framingham, Mass.

Michigan’s criminal probe of the outbreak could be the first state-level investigation of its kind. Federal officials have opened a criminal probe into the company and its owner.

Schuette said the “broad” probe would focus on the company along with four clinics in Genesee, Grand Traverse, Livingston and Macomb counties that administered the contaminated drug that was supposed to ease pain.

He did not rule out approaching other states, though typically state attorneys general coordinate more on civil — not criminal — cases.

The outbreak of meningitis, an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord, was discovered in Tennessee in September. New England Compounding Center filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December.