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Bay area ripe for hip litigation

Up to 2,000 people with faulty artificial hips live here. Several suits are filed, and more are expected.

By ANITA KUMAR

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 22, 2001


Marlene Goldner spent 45 minutes on a treadmill and exercise bike each day. She and her husband, Murray, strolled around the neighborhood each evening. She went out dancing, dining and shopping with friends.

But at only 66, the social life she embraced when she retired to Florida ended.

Hip replacement surgery was supposed to make everything better. Instead, she says, it made everything worse.

Thousands of patients nationwide -- Mrs. Goldner included -- had defective parts implanted in their bodies that were recalled in December by artificial joint manufacturing giant Sulzer Orthopedic.

Now they're suing.

At least 50 lawsuits already have been filed across the state against the Austin, Texas, company after patients claimed the parts caused serious pain, inflammation and, worst of all, prevented bones from healing. In many cases, patients needed another operation or were left immobile because their health prevented them from having a second surgery.

Six lawsuits have been filed in the Tampa Bay area. That includes a Hillsborough County case that seeks class-action status that patients across the nation could join.

But with law firms looking for clients in newspapers and on television in the Tampa Bay area, even more lawsuits are expected.

Mrs. Goldner, who filed a product liability suit in Pinellas County this week, should have recovered from her October surgery by now. But a loose connection between the implant and the bone has left her with severe groin pain and the inability to walk without a cane.

Instead, she takes Percocet daily. She can't even vacuum her house or go grocery shopping.

Until she began taking sleeping pills recently, she would lie in bed crying, singing songs or talking to God to get through the night.

"My life is completely different than it was before," Mrs. Goldner said from her Weeki Wachi home. "I'm angry. I keep saying, "How much more pain can one person go through?' "

About 1,500 to 2,000 Sulzer customers live in the bay area, more than any other part of the state, said Chad Roberts, an attorney with Spohrer Wilner Maxwell & Matthews in Jacksonville, which is representing five people in the area.

"This is a real hotspot for these things because of the (elderly) population in the area," said Joseph Saunders, a St. Petersburg lawyer who represents about two dozen hip replacement recipients in the bay area. "It's a pretty sad situation."

Most suits are cropping up in Florida, California, Texas and Georgia, where the majority of the implants were done, but Sulzer officials say they do not know how many suits have been filed.

Sulzer spokeswoman Catherine Herter said the company has settled with many patients before they filed a claim but declined to say how many. She said the company has agreed to pay out-of-pocket expenses for the second surgery, which could be thousands of dollars each.

"It's just a tragedy," Herter said.

Doctors replace about 150,000 hips a year in the United States at a cost of $20,000 to $50,000 each. Though most recipients are older people with arthritis or cartilage loss, some are younger patients who have been involved in accidents.

Hips are one of the most successful types of joint replacement operations with 98 percent of patients in some studies reporting excellent results 10 years after the operation.

The artificial parts are implanted into the upper portion of the hip, forming a socket into which the rest of the artificial joint fits.

Sulzer Orthopedics, which is part of Sulzer Medica, a multimillion-dollar international medical device company in Switzerland, estimates 17,500 of the defective parts were implanted in patients nationwide. Another 5,300 were bought by doctors but never used.

So far, about 450 patients have had surgeries to correct the problem.

Ken Thompson, 52, of Clearwater was one of those people. He had surgery at the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines on Friday, almost four months after his first hip replacement surgery.

Thompson, who has had problems with both hips for years, thought last year's surgery would be exactly what he needed. Instead, he has been laid up and unable to work with his partners at his air-conditioning company.

"I wasn't very happy to go through this again," Thompson said from his hospital room. "It should have been done right the first time."

Sulzer officials said an oily residue was left on the surface of the parts because of a manufacturing error at the Austin plant. Herter said the company has since added two new cleaning steps to the process and changed the sequence of the manufacturing.

While attorneys, such as Roberts and Saunders, accuse the company of knowing about the problems last spring long before the recall, Sulzer denies that.

Herter said the company didn't receive complaints from doctors until September. She said Sulzer began an investigation and then recalled the parts in early December, alerting the federal Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 12.

The timing means little to Mrs. Goldner these days. She just found out she probably will have to undergo a second surgery.

"It's terrible. It really is," Mrs. Goldner said. "I understand they're a great, reputable company, but I don't think much of them right now."

- Times researchers Kitty Bennett and John Martin contributed to this report.

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