IOWA CITY - An unusual personal injury lawsuit in California against a University of Iowa pharmaceutical lab has cost the school thousands of dollars in legal fees, and that figure is rising, records show.
Iowa is paying a Los Angeles firm up to $500 per hour to contest the lawsuit filed by a pharmacist who contends that she suffered painful eye injuries after being exposed to a trial drug made at UI Pharmaceuticals, which is based at the school's college of pharmacy. A state panel has approved using $27,000 of the university's money to pay legal fees, but the costs will mount because a California judge last week rejected Iowa's request to dismiss the claim.
The lawsuit was filed in February by Cynthia Wong. She works as a clinical pharmacist at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, which is a clinical trial site for pharmaceutical products. As part of her job duties, she routinely unpacked boxes of drugs. On March 3, 2011, a vapor was emitted from one of those boxes that left her with injuries to her eyes and face, according to the lawsuit filed in San Francisco County Superior Court.
UI Pharmaceuticals made the sodium chlorite that was in vials inside the box for Neuraltus Pharmaceuticals, Inc., which is trying to use the substance to develop treatment for Lou Gehrig's Disease, according to the Iowa Attorney General's Office. Wong claims that she suffered corneal abrasions, which involve scratches to the cornea and can cause inflammation, tears, blurred vision and redness, the office says.
Wong's attorney, Alan Zacharin, said his client is still bothered by eye problems nearly three years later.
"She suffered a real injury from a real physical substance that came out of that box," he said.
The package was processed by the Sharp Corp., which provides packaging services for the pharmaceutical industry, and sent to the California hospital for a clinical trial in the neurology department, he said.
Deputy Iowa Attorney General Jeff Thompson said Tuesday that the state plans to go to trial because it thinks Wong's claim has no merit. He said the state will also take steps to limit the costs for outside counsel and will monitor them closely.
UI Pharmaceuticals calls itself the largest university-affiliated, FDA-registered pharmaceutical manufacturing facility in the U.S. Its scientists develop formulations, manufacture products and conduct testing for clients in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.
According to Wong's lawsuit, her injuries were caused by safety defects in the design, manufacture, packaging and shipment of the substance. The package should have contained instructions and warnings about possible injuries so she could have made "an intelligent decision regarding whether to unpack" the box, the lawsuit says.
Wong says her injuries have left her with medical expenses, caused her to miss work and diminished her earning capacity. She is seeking unspecified damages. In addition to UI Pharmaceuticals, the lawsuit names Neuraltus and Sharp as defendants.
Because UI Pharmaceuticals is a state entity, the duty for providing its defense falls to the Iowa Attorney General's Office.
But Thompson said the office could not handle the case since its attorneys are not licensed in California. It asked the state executive council in August to hire attorney Thomas Robins of the Frandzel, Robins, Bloom & Csato law firm as special counsel at a cost of $500 per hour.
Thompson said that Los Angeles-based firm was picked because it had worked successfully with Iowa in previous civil litigation. He said the $500 hourly rate is a discount from what Robins typically charges, and that much of the work will be carried out by associates who have lower fees. He said lawyers in the attorney general's office will also assist, when possible.
The executive council - which includes Gov. Terry Branstad and other state officials - has already approved five invoices from the firm for more than $27,000, total, and the case is only beginning.
Lawyers for UI Pharmaceuticals sought to dismiss the case before they filed a response to Wong's claims. They argued that a personal injury lawsuit could not be brought against an Iowa government agency in California because the Iowa Tort Claims Act requires such suits to be exclusively filed in Iowa.
Judge Marla J. Miller ruled last week that those arguments were "without merit" and ordered UI Pharmaceuticals to file an answer to Wong's complaint within 30 days. Requiring Wong to pursue the lawsuit in Iowa "would violate California's legitimate public policy of providing a forum for its resident plaintiff to seek redress for her alleged personal injuries," she wrote.
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