An estimated 1000 individual or class action products liability lawsuits have been filed against the pharmaceutical manufacturers of diethylstilbestrol (DES). The field of potential plaintiffs is estimated at 500,000-6,000,000 and there are 150-300 potential defendant manufacturers. This article addresses the question of whether the current system of tort liability dispenses fair, timely, and uniform justice both to DES claimants and manufacturers and presents a historical perspective on the basis for liability.
Theories of recovery for DES damage. Is tort liability the answer?, NCBI pubmed/6604118, The Journal of Legal Medicine, Volume 4, Issue 2, 1983.
Traditional theories of tort recovery are based on negligence, breach of warranty, and strict liability. They place the burden of proof on the claimant to specifically identify the product manufacturer and establish proximate causation. Novel theories of recovery have had to be applied in DES lawsuits, including concert of action and alternative liability. Most of these theories have been unaccepted by trial and appellate courts because of the inability to identify the manufacturer. Even if DES manufacturers were to be held liable under a theory of industry-wide or market share liability, defendants would be called upon to allocate liability among themselves.
Many believe that any departure from traditional tort principles should be accomplished by the legislature, not the judiciary. There is not currently a bill before the US Congress dealing specifically with compensation for damages to DES victims. Any model toxic tort legislation should aim to eliminate the benefit inequities as between claimants and the cost inequities in delivering benefits to qualified recipients by the responsible parties. The claimant’s burden of establishing fault should be eliminated in exchange for a claimant’s surrender of a right to sue a third party, and a standardization of compensatory damages. The requirements of specific product identification, duration of exposure, and degree of fault would be eliminated. Jurisdictional requirements and statues of limitation must be drafted to permit recovery for previously unknown injuries. Finally, there should be an overall goal of promptness in recovery. The most equitable solution to problems with the tort system is legislation which deals with the toxic tort problem as a whole and not just on a case-by-case basis.
Arthur H. Downey LL.B. and Kenneth G. Gulley J.D.
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