Class-action status denied in lawsuits against Hutch
Seattle Times staff reporter
A federal judge yesterday denied class-action status to families suing the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center over deaths that occurred after experimental treatment for blood cancers between 1981 and 1993.
Class certification would have forced The Hutch to notify survivors of people who died after joining the experiment, who still are unaware of the controversy, said Tom Dreiling, lawyer for the families.
He said they'll press cases in small groups or one by one.
"I don't think the format of this lawsuit will make any difference in the outcome," Dreiling said.
Six people have sued the Hutchinson center and three of its cancer researchers, including a Nobel Prize winner. Dreiling said at least four more may file suits.
The Hutch, citing privacy, has refused to notify all the families, most of whom came from other states or nations.
The Seattle Times in March raised issues of premature deaths, misleading patient information and financial conflicts of interest in an article titled, "Uninformed Consent: What patients at 'The Hutch' weren't told about the experiments in which they died."
The experiment used then-new drugs to try to prevent a dangerous side-effect known as graft-versus-host-disease in bone-marrow transplants for blood cancers. The Hutch is the world's leading bone-marrow-transplant center.
The principal researcher, Dr. Paul Martin, said 82 people had enrolled in the experiment and two were still alive. Recently, the Hutch said 85 had enrolled but refused to say if any were still alive.
Some of the patients had a 50 percent chance of a full cure with conventional treatment. But the experiment failed. It led to a 25 percent rate of bone-marrow-graft failures, which are fatal, instead of the expected 1 percent. In addition, the cancer returned in 100 percent of one major patient group, instead of the expected 25 percent.
Three Hutchinson doctors — Martin, E. Donnall Thomas and John Hansen — and a Hutch-affiliated foundation owned stock in a company that held commercial rights to three of the drugs being tested.
U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik's 10-page order said the cases were different enough that they were better suited for separate trials.
Among the individual factors: prognosis, what doctors told different patients, changes in treatment over time, causes of death, and monetary damages.
Issues in common, Lasnik noted, included whether the Hutch should have conducted the experiments on humans in the first place and whether it violated the Washington Consumer Protection Act in recruiting patients.
Joseph Hassett of Hogan & Harston, Washington, D.C., attorney for the Hutchinson Center and its doctors, said in an e-mail:
"We look forward to a prompt trial and believe the evidence will show that the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and its physicians were acting in the best interest of their patients."
No date has been set for trial.
Peggy Draheim, widow of a former Navy physician from Bremerton who died of graft failure, said she was not surprised by the judge's ruling and planned to press ahead with a case "whether it's half a dozen of us or 85 of us."
Pete Wright, a Heflin, Ala., drugstore owner whose wife died when her leukemia returned, said he would take his case forward, too.
"I know right from wrong," Wright said, "and I know what they did was wrong."