A lawsuit recently unsealed in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court alleges University Hospitals knew of issues with its fertility clinic tanks months before a failure that destroyed more than 4,000 eggs and embryo.
The suit, filed on behalf of Kate and Jeremy Plants (one of the couples affected by the failure), names the hospital and Custom Biogenic Systems (CBS) among dozens of defendants. CBS manufactured and sold the tanks to UH, and the plaintiffs claim they knew of the problems as well.
The 66-page filing, one of the first detailed accounts of the events leading up to the disaster, claims CBS was "specifically aware" when the liquid nitrogen vapor tanks were sold in 2011 that ice inside was likely to build up on the solenoid valve "in 5-7 years, causing the tank and its solenoid valve, sensors and gauges to fail." UH allegedly did not become aware of this issue until "around the summer of 2017," and although CBS provided them with a loaner tank to store the eggs and embryos while the ice could be thawed, UH instead used this tank to thaw out another freezing tank in its andrology lab before heading to embryology. CBS did not provide them with a second loaner tank, allegedly because they did not have enough available.
With the embryology tank unable to thaw, the ice buildup continued, so much so that "the gauges and alarms could not be trusted" and employees had to manually fill the tank and even open it to measure the amount of liquid nitrogen by hand. The amount of nitrogen required to keep the tank operating also increased substantially, and by Mar. 2, 2018 (just days before the disaster), the hospital allegedly ran out. The next shipment did not apparently arrive until the next week, when the tank's temperature had already risen causing a failure. Nitrogen suppliers Sodexo Operations and Airgas have also been named in the lawsuit for this reason.
In addition to the multiple warning signs, the suit also claims the fertility clinic was understaffed for months up until the failure, and that a prior temperature spike two months before "was never investigated or corrected." It is also alleged the alarm had become such a problem that officials "even went so far as increase the tank temperature at which the alarms would be triggered and result in reporting." UH eventually determined the alarm on the tank did not sound when the temperature rose, resulting in the failure.
This lawsuit is one of several already filed in the case, with the most recent set this past January coming against the company responsible for monitoring the alarm systems on the tanks. The first set of lawsuits were eventually consolidated all into one by a Cuyahoga County judge, and a gag order was later issued against the attorneys in that specific case.
Following the discovery of the failure, UH replaced Dr. James Goldfarb (also named in the suit) as director of the fertility clinic, and apologized to the patients who had been effected. With regard to the latest unsealed lawsuit, the hospital released the following statement on the matter:
"As University Hospitals works with the court and counsel in moving these cases towards resolution, we do so respecting the court’s order that these cases should be tried in a courtroom, and not in the media. Therefore, we will not comment further. University Hospitals remains deeply sorry for the impact this event has had, and how it has affected our Fertility Center patients and families."