Consolidation of baby formula lawsuits sought in Illinois

Mead Johnson's product Enfamil baby formula are displayed on a store shelf in New York City, U.S., February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
  • Lawsuits against Abbott Labs and Mead Johnson claim cows' milk formula caused deadly condition in premature infants
  • More than 30 lawsuits are in Illinois, where companies are based, plaintiffs' law firm said

(Reuters) - More than 30 lawsuits claiming that cows' milk baby formula products cause a dangerous medical condition in premature infants have been filed against the makers of Enfamil and Similac in Illinois state courts since February, and plaintiffs’ firm Keller Lenkner is seeking to consolidate them before one judge.

In a motion filed on Tuesday, the law firm asked the Illinois Supreme Court to consolidate the lawsuits in Madison County, Illinois, including the firm's 20 cases asserting claims on behalf of 85 infants against Abbott Laboratories, Mead Johnson & Co LLC and Mead Johnson Nutrition Co. In total, 33 lawsuits over the formula products are pending in Illinois, where the companies are based, according to the firm.

The lawsuits would be joined for discovery and other pretrial matters, if the motion, filed by Keller Lenkner and co-counsel the Holland Law Firm, is granted.

Travis Lenkner, managing partner of Keller Lenkner, told Reuters the firm anticipates filing more cases against the companies. It will ask to lead the litigation if it is consolidated, he said.

The families say their premature babies were fed Abbott's Similac or Mead Johnson's Enfamil products while they were in the hospital and developed an intestinal condition called necrotizing enterocolitis, or NEC. Babies with the condition often require surgery, and several of the plaintiffs suing say their children died from it. Hospitals are not named in the actions.

The suits accuse the companies of failing to respond to medical research that has drawn a connection between the cows' milk formula products and NEC, saying they should have either reformulated the products or warned about the risks.

The companies in court filings have denied that their products cause NEC. Abbott has said that the condition is "naturally occurring" and can develop in premature infants fed breast milk, a combination of breast milk and formula, or just formula.

In a statement, Abbott spokesperson Scott Stoffel said the company's Similac products are proven to be safe and effective. "These allegations are without merit," Stoffel said.

Representatives of Mead Johnson did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development estimates that NEC impacts about 9,000 preterm infants born each year in the United States.

If granted, the consolidation would mean discovery and pretrial proceedings for all the suits would run out of a single courtroom in Madison County, according to the firm. Cases filed in the county would be tried there, while others would be sent back to the counties where they were filed for trial.

The first of Keller Lenkner’s cases filed in Madison County, which was brought on behalf of 10 families, is expected to be the first to go to trial in March 2023, according to the firm. Four more trials are already scheduled, Lenkner said.

The case is Destin Jupiter v. Mead Johnson & Co LLC, Madison County Circuit Court, No. 2021-L-000560

For the plaintiffs: Eric Holland, Robert Evola, Seth Crompton and Ann Callis of Holland Law Firm; and Travis Lenkner, Ashley Keller and Amelia Frenkel of Keller Lenkner

For Abbott: Jason Rankin and Emilee Bramstedt of HeplerBroom; and Bryce Cooper, Stephen D’Amore and Scott Glauberman of Winston & Strawn

For Mead Johnson: Donald Flack and Patrick Kenny of Armstrong Teasdale; and Anthony Anscombe, Darlene Alt and Cara Lawson of Steptoe & Johnson

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