Sperm Bank Failure Leads to Forty “John Doe” Lawsuits

Forty “John Doe” lawsuits were filed in the Cook County Circuit Court against Northwestern Memorial Hospital (NMH) and the Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation (NMFF) following the failure of a long-term sperm sample storage system. The plaintiffs are all men at risk of infertility because of disease or medical treatments who had stored sperm specimens to preserve their abilities to have biological children in the future. Three of the plaintiffs were minors at the time; the youngest was 14 years old with a rare form of cancer. The suits were filed anonymously to protect the patients’ identities, due to the sensitive nature of the subject matter.

A cryopreservation tank owned by NMH and maintained by NMFF failed in April 2012, damaging and destroying semen and testicular tissue. The tank’s alarm system also failed; technicians were not alerted to the tank’s failure and were unable to respond in a timely fashion. The suits also allege that NMH and NMFF failed adequately monitor and respond when it knew that the system had failed. NMFF says that it immediately transferred specimens to a working storage tank after observing the malfunction. Since the failure, the malfunctioning tank has been replaced, and additional storage safeguards were added. Manufacturers of the tank and other equipment have conducted initial inspections that will be completed this fall.

NMFF’s chief medical officer released a statement acknowledging the “malfunctioning” of the cryogenic storage tank. The statement expressed deep regret, and said that NMFF’s primary focus has been on its patients and their needs. A team of specialty physicians from NMFF’s urology and reproductive endocrinology departments notified over 250 patients of the sperm bank’s failure. NMFF says that more than 100 patients have been involved in further evaluation and consultation with the hospitals; it believes that many samples may remain viable for in vitro fertilization use. According to the statement, NMFF will likely assert third party claims against the manufacturers of the failed equipment. NMH has declined to comment because of the pending lawsuit.

Northwestern Memorial HealthCare, which includes NMH, is one of the largest systems in the Chicago area. NMFF is the second-largest physicians group in the Chicago area, and is expected to complete its ongoing merger with Northwestern Memorial HealthCare by September 1, 2013.