When we were on a jury last month we were warned not to consult any outside sources. And we didn’t. When we were in high school last century and studied the works of Eliot, Lawrence, Joyce, Waugh, and (another) Eliot, we were instructed not to consider extraneous issues, such as biography or social conditions. Our teachers were still in the grip of the New Criticism and, therefore, so were we.
But we found today’s case, Lynch v. State, 2018 Conn. Super. LEXIS 851 (Conn. Superior Ct. April 17, 2018), tough sledding without doing some research beyond the four corners of the opinion. The case is about a plaintiff who was inseminated by a sperm bank donor, came down with a cytomegalovirus (CMV), and gave birth to children with serious injuries. What we learned courtesy of the internet is that CMV is fairly common and usually doesn’t cause terrible maladies. The problem is that if a CMV-negative woman gets infected with CMV during pregnancy, there is a possibility of birth defects. That is what happened here. The plaintiff had been CMV negative. That is something she knew and her doctor knew, but the sperm bank did not know it. The sperm donor tested as CMV-positive, though he no longer actively suffered from CMV. The sperm bank accurately disclosed the CMV-positive status of the sperm. What the sperm bank did not do was tell the plaintiff that if she was CMV-negative, then CMV-positive sperm could pose a risk. But, presumably, the plaintiff’s doctor would know that. We know it from reading a Wikipedia article. We never attended medical school, not even for ten seconds. Call us a semi-learned, blogging defense hack.
The sperm bank moved for summary judgment, arguing that it did not owe the plaintiff a duty of care because a sperm bank does not have a duty to inquire into its clients’ CMV status, nor is it obligated to engage in an informed consent discussion with clients regarding the clients’ CMV status. The Connecticut court agreed with the sperm bank and dismissed the case. How is this a drug or device case? It isn’t, but the scope of duty to warn and the relevance of the learned intermediary doctrine both poke their way into this case, and that is enough for us to stand up and take notice.
Pursuant to the regulations, sperm banks are required to test their donors for certain diseases, including CMV. But the regulations do not impose on sperm banks an obligation to discuss the implication of the tests they run with the purchasers. The evidence here showed that the sperm bank fulfilled its obligation to test for the sperm donor’s CMV status and to report the results accurately. The results indicated that the donor was fully recovered and immunized from the virus, and that he was not actively infected with CMV at the time of the donation. Due to these test results, the defendants reported that the donor was CMV-positive. The evidence did not show any knowledge on the part of the sperm bank that the plaintiff was CMV-negative. The only duty the sperm bank had to the plaintiff was to conduct the required testing on the donor and to report the results of the tests, which it did.
The Connecticut court analogized to the duties that a pharmacy owes to its customers. A previous Connecticut court applied the learned intermediary doctrine to pharmacists. Yay for the Nutmeg State. The court held that imposing a general duty on pharmacies and pharmacists to investigate and evaluate all of the medications that their customers’ physicians prescribed would impose a burden outside the scope of their normal duties, as the main job of pharmacists is to dispense the medications that their customers’ physicians prescribe. The learned intermediary doctrine makes sense in the pharmacist context given the fact that physicians have more knowledge than pharmacists about their patients’ needs and proclivities. Holding otherwise would put pharmacists between the physician-patient relationship. The sperm bank is like a pharmacist. (That’s a sentence we never thought we would write, but there it is.) The plaintiff’s doctor testified that he would typically advise CMV-negative patients to choose CMV-negative sperm. (The opinion does not make clear why that did not happen here.) The court reasoned that holding that the sperm bank “had a duty to inform the plaintiff parents about the risks that CMV posed would also put the sperm bank in the middle of the physician-patient relationship.”
Most of the Lynch opinion contains a discussion of the scope of duty. There is a lot about foreseeability. (It throws us back to first year in law school, when we sat in the last row, next to the guy who always added to the seating chart a space for “Garth, the Most Savage Troll of All.” Only one teacher ever had the temerity to call upon Garth.) Even beyond foreseeability, the court asked whether the sperm bank might have assumed a duty to the plaintiff because either its failure to exercise care increased the risk of harm or the harm was suffered because of the plaintiff’s reliance upon the defendant’s undertaking. No and no. First, the information that the sperm bank made available on its website about sperm CMV status did not appear to increase the risk of the type of harm that the plaintiff allegedly suffered. Although the website did arguably give some medical advice by saying that the risk of acquiring CMV from donor sperm is low, the website also informed its customers that this is a medical issue that clients should discuss with their physician. This language “clearly suggests that the sperm bank’s customers should not rely on the information provided on the website and that they should ask their physicians about CMV.” Back to the learned intermediary. Second, there is no evidence that the plaintiff relied on this information when selecting the donor’s sperm. The plaintiff testified that she did not discuss her or her donor’s CMV status with any representative from the defendant sperm bank, and there is no indication that she saw the page on the website that allegedly created a duty. The Lynch court went back to the pharmacy example. It is possible for a pharmacy or pharmacist to assume a duty when they have “specific knowledge of potential harm to specific persons in particular cases.” But here, “this exception is not applicable because the defendant sperm bank had no knowledge of the plaintiff mother’s CMV status.”
Applicable federal regulations did not help the plaintiff’s case. Test results will show that a donor is CMV-positive even if the donor had contracted and then subsequently recovered from the virus. FDA regulations provide that a sperm donor who is actively infected with CMV is ineligible to donate. Here, the sperm bank tested the donor and determined that he was CMV-positive, but that he had fully recovered from the virus and was not actively infected with it at the time of his donation. There was no violation of the regulations.
Finally, there was the usual argument from a plaintiff that summary judgment should be denied until discovery is complete. But a party requesting more time to conduct discovery bears the burden of establishing a valid reason why the motion should be denied, including some indication as to what steps the party has taken to secure facts necessary to defeat the motion. That burden was not met here. Thus, the court granted the defendant summary judgment.