AcroMed- Sambolin Appeal Re Notice to Class (In re Orthopedic Bone Screw Prods. Liab. Litig.)

Class Actions — Objections to Proposed Settlements
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The AcroMed bone screw class action settlement was signed on January 8, 1997. That settlement provided about $100 million to be split among individuals claiming injury from the defendant's bone screws. Notice of the settlement was provided in January and February of 1997, by first-class mail notice to individuals who had already sued AcroMed or who were otherwise known to plaintiffs' counsel, and a short ad was published in USA Today, TV Guide, and Parade, and on page 50 of a newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The settlement appeared to require that class members file a one-page registration form by May 1, 1997 (later extended to May 15), including basic information but no information concerning the nature of the class member's injuries. The deadline was about 5 months before the district court approved the settlement and more than two years before claim forms with allegations of injury and supporting medical data were eventually required to be filed. The notice sent by first-class mail contained a registration form, but the publication notices did not.

At the time the notice was published, Alexander Sambolin lived in a small village in Puerto Rico. Six months earlier he had had his defective AcroMed screws removed because one had broken, another had loosened, and he was in excruciating pain. He never saw notice of the settlement, which was not published in Luquillo. After consulting local attorneys who also knew nothing of the class-action settlement, he spoke with a Miami lawyer, learned of the class action settlement, and, days later, submitted his registration form in December 1997. Mr. Sambolin also submitted his claim form with supporting medical evidence before most other class members.

Thereafter, the district court ruled that the May 1997 deadline was absolute, and the Claims Administrator notified Mr. Sambolin that his claim would be denied as untimely. Mr. Sambolin then filed a motion asking the district court for relief from the district court’s inflexible deadline, arguing that the class action notice was inadequate and that due process required treating his registration and claim form as timely. The district court denied that motion.

Public Citizen represented Mr. Sambolin on appeal to the Third Circuit. We argued that refusing to process his claim was an abuse of discretion and a violation of due process because no one was prejudiced by “late” registrants who filed their substantive claims on time. In addition, we argued that the notice of the settlement was so paltry as to violate due process, and thus no class member can be bound to due dates contained in that notice. The Third Circuit ruled in favor of Mr. Sambolin, holding held that the district court abused its discretion in excluding claimant from sharing in the class action settlement fund simply because he failed to meet the registration deadline.