In an unfavorable--but not unexpected--ruling, the Federal appellate court denied a mandamus petition filed by four medical societies targeted as defendants in a mass tort suit. The petition was the last in a series of efforts made by the societies to prevent the cases from moving forward. The suit, the first mass tort litigation to hold societies liable for what they teach at seminars, is being closely watched not only by the CME community, but by the wider association community, because of its potential threat to association-sponsored education. (See Turn of the Pedicle Screw, December issue, page 37.)
In the massive tort litigation case, which involves more than 2,000 civil actions and 5,000 plaintiffs, four medical societies--the North American Spine Society (NASS), the Scoliosis Research Society (SRS), the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, and the American Association of Neurosurgeons--are accused of putting on sales events under the guise of CME seminars as part of a conspiracy with manufacturers to promote--illegally--pedicle screws, de-vices used in spinal surgery.
Last year, the societies had filed a motion to dismiss the cases, but in April, U.S. District Court Judge Louis C. Bechtle ruled against them. The mandamus petition was an effort to overturn that ruling. Such a petition is a very unusual legal procedure and rarely succeeds, says Shawn Collins, chief counsel, pedicle screw litigation, NASS, because appellate courts do not usually intervene with trial judges before a case has completed the trial process. "We didn't have any real strong hopes of being successful," acknowledges Tressa Goulding, executive director, SRS, "but we felt it was a shot we had to take."
The ruling on the petition came down right before Thanksgiving; in the month following, Judge Bechtle remanded 53 of the cases to their original courthouses around the country, to be tried individually. There are 400 to 500 cases altogether, and Collins expects that all of them will be remanded over the next year. Each case will either be thrown out, or go to trial. Either way, says Collins, "we'll have a decision from a judge or jury. We're happy about that. What we want is resolution. We don't want these issues to drag on forever. We are confident there will be successful outcomes for us." Adds Goulding, "I'm ready to see the facts come out. [Up until this point] all that has happened has been discussion about whether there is a legal right for these cases, and the facts have been secondary. I think it will be interesting to see the truth come out."