Between 1940 and the early 1970s, millions of expectant mothers were given the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) to help prevent miscarriages and premature births. A study in 1971 found a potential link between the drug and an increased risk for vaginal cancer in young women whose mothers took DES. Doctors were told to stop prescribing it. Many product liability lawsuits have been filed over the years by women who allegedly have vaginal cancer, cervical cancer, or infertility issues as a result of their mothers being given DES during pregnancy.
In a recent lawsuit, a Boston woman is claiming something different. Arline MacCormack developed breast cancer when she was 44. While many women have breast cancer at that age or even younger, her type of cancer is typically not seen in women younger than 60.
After discovering research that linked DES to a significant increase in breast-cancer risks for women, Ms. MacCormack filed her lawsuit against several drug companies that manufactured and sold the drug to women like her mother in the 1960s. Her suit alleges that the drug companies were not only aware that DES did not prevent a woman from having a miscarriage, but also that there were safety issues with the drug that the companies kept from physicians.
The drug companies have filed pre-trial motions stating there is no scientific evidence regarding this supposed link between DES and breast cancer, and the presiding judge has heard testimony from experts for the companies and Ms. MacCormack. If the judge grants the companies' motion, the case will not go to trial. If their motion is denied, the case will go to trial.
Drug liability cases can become very complex. In the case above, the plaintiff, Ms. MacCormack is seeking restitution for a drug that was not even given to her directly, but to her mother 50 years ago. While this can make a case more challenging, this situation is not that uncommon. Side effects of drugs given to women during pregnancy can take years to show up in their offspring. Other types of product liability cases, such as those involving asbestos, can also have a significant delay between the time of the exposure and the appearance of symptoms. Trying to prove which company manufactured and sold the drug that a particular individual took many years ago would be difficult, so oftentimes multiple companies are included in the suit and may share the liability and be required to pay damages.