The word superbug strikes fear into the hearts of healthcare providers for good reason. These strains of bacteria are resistant to almost all types of antibiotics. In the United States, superbugs are responsible for killing 23,000 people a year and infecting more than 2 million.
In February 2015, superbugs were in the news when a bacteria known as carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE, was tied to two deaths and five infections at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. The infections were tied to duodenoscopes, which are inserted by mouth to access patients’ small intestine, pancreas, and liver.
UCLA Medical Center and the endoscope’s manufacturer, Olympus Corporation, were careful not to blame one another for the problems. However, the cooperation between the makers and the users of the endoscope is expected to quickly break down once the inevitable malpractice lawsuits are filed. As John Culhane, of the Family Health Law & Policy Institute at the Widener University School of Law in Delaware, states, “The bottom line is that the two defendants will be hauled into court, and they’ll be trying to do two things: One, they didn’t do anything wrong; the second thing is to pin the blame on the other defendant.”
The family of one infected patient, an 18-year-old man who spent 83 days in the ICU after an endoscope procedure, is suing Olympus Corp. His lawyers claim the manufacture knew that the complex design of the scope made it nearly impossible to clean off dangerous bacteria. The lawyers say the instruments were sold to maximize sales and profits at the expense of the health and safety of the public.
Problems for Olympus magnified when the FDA revealed that over 135 patients might have been exposed not only to superbugs, but to HIV and hepatitis as a result of the endoscope procedures. In Pittsburgh alone, malpractice lawyer Brendan Lupetin is representing more than 200 patients in a class-action suit against a Pennsylvania clinic accused of not properly sterilizing its endoscopes. In Los Angles, lawyers are targeting both UCLA, Olympus, and third-parties who were responsible for maintaining and sterilizing the equipment.
Some health care and sterilization experts say there is no guarantee of success with these malpractice lawsuits, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to prepare. It’s hard to prove the cause of an infection, and doctors rarely list infection as the cause of death. Lawyers for the hospitals say that proving causation is impossible; some patients might have had superbug infections when they entered the facilities. Whatever the case, the superbug blame-game will likely continue for years as the cases wind their way through court.