“Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology… We can make him better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.”
That’s the famous quote from the 1970’s television show, The Six Million Dollar Man. And with a short surgical montage, the deed was done – all the damaged bits replaced with chromed steel and electronics. But along with jet packs and flying cars, the technology to rebuild human bodies hasn’t quite panned out as expected. The recent $56 million settlement with Biomet, a maker of hip joint replacements, demonstrates how it can go painfully wrong.
The settlement involves more than 500 plaintiffs who had to undergo revision surgery after getting a “metal on metal” style hip replacement. A further group of plaintiffs Revision surgery means the implant must be removed or replaced. The root issue in the Biomet case, and with other hip replacements of the same type, is that the metal wears inappropriately, releasing toxic chromium into the bloodstream. They can also break into shards, pushing small slivers of metal into the surrounding tissues. Even when there is no structural damage, the metal joints can corrode, releasing cobalt and chromium.
Hip replacement surgery is a big deal. Besides the usual risks that come with surgery (infection, complications), there’s the recovery time – three or four days in the hospital and three to six weeks until full mobility. Even then, the artificial hip can’t accommodate the full stresses natural hip joints bear. Patients are cautioned against high-impact activities, such as jogging or tennis. It’s worse for those who are overweight – each additional pound of body weight adds three pounds to the force the joint must handle.
A patient could spend more than half a year unable to work while they recovered from the medical issues.
Last year, Biomet negotiated a settlement based on an average award of $200,000 per patient. However, this amount could be adjusted upward through mediation, depending on how much a particular patient spent for revision surgery and other costs. It could also be less, for those with conditions known to adversely affect hip replacements, such as smokers and the obese.
This settlement doesn’t end the legal wrangling, both for Biomet and for other companies who made similar hip replacements. Some of the issues patients suffer from don’t emerge until long after the original surgery. The current awards are expected to be just the tip of a very big iceberg.
Even with the lawsuits, metal-on-metal (MoM) hip replacements are still being sold and installed. They have a higher risk of problems than other types, such as metal on Teflon. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recorded (2011 data) more than 12,000 adverse medical events with MoM types, verses about 6,000 for other designs.
There’s another trend expected to generate even more litigation. While the current patient demographic is mostly elderly (old enough to have seen the original Six Million Dollar Man TV show), joint replacement surgery is growing more popular with younger patients – sometimes because they have early onset arthritis and joint problems, but sometimes because of a serious break or injury involving a joint. Those involved in sports may “wear out” joints, and replacement is sometimes offered as a quick fix to restore mobility.
The general advice given to those who have had hip (or other joint) replacement surgery and who are experiencing problems is to consult both your doctor and a lawyer. A qualified attorney can help you decide if you are due compensation, either through an existing class action settlement or through a direct lawsuit. They can help you file a claim if warranted.
Compensation is usually available for medical expenses (including caregiver costs) and lost income. Other monies may be available for pain and suffering, damage to personal relationships, and to punish the manufacturer for malfeasance (punitive damages).