Three men turned their sperm over to doctors at Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation before undergoing medical treatment that might or would result in sterility. In doing so, these men trusted that the medical group would properly preserve their sperm so they could, one day, start a family. What these men did not know is that the medical group's cryogenic storage tank would malfunction, destroying their sperm and, by extension, their ability to potentially have children of their own.
On April 21 and 22, 2012, the cryogenic storage tank that contained sperm of hundreds of men malfunctioned, along with the alarm system intended to alert staff in the event of malfunction. The storage tank was owned by Northwestern Faculty Foundation, a medical group based in Chicago affiliated with Northwestern University. When medical staff learned of the malfunction, they transferred the sperm samples to another freezer. Although some of the sperm samples were preserved, others were not. This past summer, lawyers for three men whose sperm was destroyed filed a motion seeking to preserve evidence in connection with the malfunctioned storage tank.
Based on information immediately known, there is a potential lawsuit against both Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation and the manufacturer of the cryogenic storage tanks. Regarding the medical group, questions remain whether they took all appropriate steps to preserve the sperm or whether were medically negligent. To the extent each sample represented each male's likely one and only shot for children, the medical group should have arguably taken greater precautions such as dividing each sample into two separate storage tanks in the event one tank failed. In addition to separate storage tanks, had the medical group's staff periodically monitored the cryogenic tanks each day, they would have discovered the malfunction sooner and transferred the samples before any of them became non-viable. Instead, it appears the medical staff did not discover the malfunction for at least 24 to 48 hours after the malfunction began. Further investigation may reveal other safety measures that should have been taken to avoid the very destruction that occurred in this case.
In addition to the medical group, there is a potential product liability case against the manufacturer of the cryogenic storage tanks. Indeed, there appears to be two possible defects that caused or contributed to the sperm being destroyed. First, had the freezer been functioning properly, it should not have malfunctioned. Whether the tank was defectively designed or manufactured remains to be seen. Second, the freezer's alarm system, designed to alert the user if there is a malfunctioned, failed to sound according to initial reports. Thus, there appears to have been two different malfunctions which lead to sperm being destroyed. Of course, as with many product liability claims, the manufacturer will likely deny any defect and, instead, blame the purported malfunction on operator misuse. That is, the manufacturer may argue the medical group was not maintaining or using the storage tank properly such that this caused the malfunction. In the event a lawsuit is filed against the medical group and the manufacturer of the freezers, there will be hotly contested arguments over what went wrong and why.
Huffington Post, Sperm Lawsuit? Chicago Men File Motion Over Frozen Sperm Allegedly Destroyed By Equipment Failure, July 18, 2012.
Chicago Tribune, 3 Men Want To Know How Their Frozen Sperm Was Destroyed, July 16, 2012.