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(UPDATED) University Hospitals hit with lawsuit after Fertility Center freezer malfunction damages embryos, eggs

The problem occurred in one of the two large liquid nitrogen freezers that house specimens.

Beth Jones Sanborn, Managing Editor

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Cleveland's University Hospital system is under fire after a refrigeration unit in its fertility center malfunctioned, compromising around 2,000 frozen embryos and eggs. A local law firm has filed a class action lawsuit against University Hospitals Ahuja Medical Center fertility clinic after a malfunction caused the temperature in the storage tank to rise, potentially destroying the eggs and embryos stored inside.

"Our clients are absolutely devastated, as I'm sure countless families across Ohio are, in the wake of this catastrophic failure by University Hospitals," said Mark DiCello of DiCello Levitt & Casey. The lawsuit was filed Sunday in Cuyahoga County.

The hospital said in a statement on its website that officials are investigating the cause of the malfunction. They said they have contacted the affected patients and set up a call center to arrange personal meetings or calls with physicians.

"We are bringing in independent experts to ensure we understand all aspects of this occurrence and do everything possible to address the situation," the statement said." Right now, our patients come first. We are incredibly sorry this happened. We are committed to getting answers and working with patients individually to address their concerns."

The malfunction occurred in one of the two large liquid nitrogen freezers used that house the specimens at the UH Fertility Center. The freezer houses about 2,000 egg and embryo specimens. The system called the malfunction an "unexpected temperature fluctuation," and the lawsuit claims the temperature in the storage tank in which the defendants were storing the embryos rose to an "unacceptable, unsafe, and unsustainable level."

According to the lawsuit, the hospital has informed the patients that their eggs and embryos were destroyed. The lawsuit also stated that the storage tank has monitors and sensors that set off audible alarms if there is a temperature flux, and can be monitored remotely.

"Defendants failed to physically staff its facility housing the storage tank the night of March 3, 2018, nor did Defendants monitor that storage tank that night in any manner," the lawsuit claims.

The morning of March 4, 2018, an alarm alerted embryologists to a temperature change in the storage tank. Staff moved the eggs and embryos to another storage tank, according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs are seeking at least $25,000 in both punitive and compensatory damages. 

On the same day as the malfunction at the UH clinic, a tank malfunction at the Pacific Fertility Center in San Francisco compromised the embryos and eggs of about 400 patients.

According to a report from NPR, thousands of frozen eggs and embryos were compromised after the liquid nitrogen in one tank fell to a "very low" level. An emergency filling of the tank was executed and the specimens were transferred.

A clinic leader told NPR that viable embryos were saved, but they are still determining the exact fallout from the incident. The affected patients have been notified, yielding highly emotional exchanges, NPR's report said.

Twitter: @BethJSanborn
Email the writer: beth.sanborn@himssmedia.com

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