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- Jurors find tank maker 90% responsible for failure
- Hundreds of other lawsuits, arbitration remain pending
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(Reuters) - The first trial over the failure of a Chart Industries Inc cryogenic tank at a San Francisco fertility clinic ended Thursday with a verdict of nearly $15 million for three women and a couple who lost their eggs or embryos in the tank.
The jury found Chart 90% responsible for the failure, which resulted in the loss of thousands of and eggs and embryos, and found the clinic, Pacific Fertility Center, 10% responsible, meaning that Chart may not be liable for the full award. The clinic was not a defendant in the three-week trial, having earlier won a motion to send its claims to arbitration.
"The jury's verdict sends a loud and clear message," said Adam Wolf of Peiffer Wolf Carr Kane & Conway, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. "When people entrust their embryos or eggs to a fertility clinic, they are entrusting their family to the clinic. When mistakes occur, it is devastating."
Chart and its attorney John Duffy of Swanson, Martin & Bell did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday evening.
Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed over the March 2018 tank failure. U.S. District Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley last June denied a motion by the plaintiffs to certify the case as a class action, finding that the plaintiffs' injuries varied too widely and ordering a series of separate trials.
The plaintiffs alleged that the electronic controller that monitored the level of liquid nitrogen in the tank malfunctioned, and that the liquid nitrogen boiled away when a faulty weld cracked. They said Chart was aware of how its tanks could fail but did not warn customers or recall them.
Chart's lawyers countered that Pacific Fertility employees used an unreliable manual monitoring procedure when the controller malfunctioned rather than calling promptly for repair or switching to a backup tank. They said that the loss of liquid nitrogen could not have happened as the plaintiffs claim, and that Pacific Fertility employees lied during the trial to cover up their mistakes.
The jury rejected that defense. It awarded the three women who lost eggs $2.075 million, $2.6 million and $3.1 million, and the couple who lost embryos $7.2 million. Most of the damages were for pain, suffering and emotional distress.
Plaintiffs' lawyers had asked for more than $30 million in their closing argument on Wednesday.
The next trials in the litigation are expected to take place later this year. The plaintiffs' arbitration against Pacific Fertility remains pending.
The case is In re Pacific Fertility Center Litigation, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, No. 18-cv-01586.
For the plaintiffs: Dena Sharp of Girard Sharp, Adam Wolf of Peiffer Wolf Carr Kane & Conway, Amy Zeman of Gibbs Law Group and others
For Chart: John Duffy of Swanson, Martin & Bell