April 17, 2001
Appellate Decision in Bone Screw Class Action Provides Relief to Victims Who Missed Deadline for Benefits
WASHINGTON, D.C. ? In a major decision benefitting class action members, the U. S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia held this week that victims of defective orthopedic bone screws cannot be denied compensation solely on the grounds that they registered for benefits after the original deadline set by a trial court.
The decision resolves a dispute arising from a $100 million class action settlement between thousands of victims of allegedly defective bone screws and the screw manufacturer, AcroMed Corp. The settlement was to be divided among the patients based on the severity of their injuries. But hundreds of class members did not know about the deadline until much later, and the Philadelphia trial court said it would not excuse late registration and denied all compensation to the “late” filers.
The Public Citizen Litigation Group appealed the trial court?s decision on behalf of a class member, Alexander Sambolin, who was not informed about the deadline until months after it passed. The decision of the appeals court will allow Sambolin and other late-filing class members to share in the benefits of the settlement.
“This is a great victory for Mr. Sambolin and other people harmed by AcroMed’s bone screws,” said Brian Wolfman, the Public Citizen Litigation Group attorney who argued Sambolin?s appeal. “In addition, the Third Circuit’s decision is a terrific precedent. Courts in class actions and lawyers representing class members will now have to be more diligent in giving people notice when their important rights are at stake.”
AcroMed marketed the orthopedic bone screws to alleviate back pain, but thousands of patients claimed that the screws actually exacerbated their pain, often breaking after they were implanted in the patients’ spines. As a stipulation of the January 1997 settlement reached between AcroMed and the class, patients were required to register by May 15, 1997, to obtain benefits.
But the court-approved notification of the settlement ? which, for those who had not already sued AcroMed, consisted solely of a few small advertisements in national publications ? was woefully inadequate. Sambolin, who lives in a small seaside village in Puerto Rico, was notified of the settlement only when a Miami lawyer told him that the class action might provide him some compensation for his debilitating injuries. However, under the original terms of the settlement, he was unable to participate in the class action and collect benefits.
The Public Citizen Litigation Group, which has represented consumers and product victims in more than 30 nationwide class action settlements, argued to the appeals court that the trial judge was wrong not to allow late registration, because the $100 million had yet to be distributed and the notification procedures had been grossly inadequate. The appeals court agreed and ordered that Mr. Sambolin, and class members in similar situations, be allowed to share in the settlement benefits.
“Our justice system should be active in opposing unfair and unlawful class action settlements,” Wolfman said. “We must continue to preserve the use of class action lawsuits as an important tool for justice for American consumers.”