Five patients affected by a fertility clinic lab malfunction have been awarded some $15 million in damages.
The incident took place at Pacific Fertility Center, a San Francisco clinic where, in 2018, a defective piece of equipment prematurely thawed more than 3,500 frozen eggs and embryos. According to the Washington Post, the company that manufactured the part—which monitored the temperature of the storage tank—knew it was defective, but failed to recall it or inform the public. For this reason, the manufacturer shouldered 90 percent of the legal responsibility for the malfunction, while jurors held Pacific Fertility Center to account for the remaining 10 percent.
That either were made liable at all is significant. The case reportedly marks the first time a jury has awarded patients damages for destroyed eggs and embryos—a frightening harbinger for the fertility industry, but a promising one for those who have been wronged by it. Though more than a dozen patients sued a Cleveland fertility clinic following a similar malfunction—which coincidentally took place on the same day as the one in San Francisco—they have so far resolved their suits in private settlements.
“This verdict should be a wake-up call for fertility centers,” Adam Wolf, a lawyer representing one of the San Francisco clinic patients, told the Guardian. “The jury’s award shows that when clinics make mistakes they can be devastating.”
As the Post points out, there is little to no government oversight of fertility clinics in the U.S., save for state laws aimed at restricting stem cell research. Some private organizations have attempted to establish industry standards, but companies get to decide whether or not they opt into them. And the equipment clinics use are often no more regulated “than kitchen appliances or farm tools,” one expert told the Post.
These are not the conditions one would hope to find in a facility that serves patients for whom the temperature in a storage tank could mean the difference between having a child and not.
“Nothing can bring these eggs and embryos back,” said Dena Sharp, another attorney in the Pacific Fertility Center case, in closing arguments. “Nothing can turn back that biological clock. Nothing can truly restore what these plaintiffs had taken from them.”