On November 18, 2015, U.S. District Judge Kathryn H. Vratil of Kansas appointed the first plaintiffs steering committee (PSC) in a federal multidistrict litigation (MDL) with a majority of women members. This is a significant and appropriate achievement given that women comprise a large segment of the lawyers in the United States and about 50 percent of all law school graduating classes, and yet such committee had never been formed. It was of such import that it elicited the cover story article in The National Law Journal the next day.
The federal court approved of the committee proposed by Paul J. Pennock, the chair of W&L’s Defective Drug & Medical Device practice group, and Aimee Wagstaff of Andrus Wagstaff in Lakewood, Colorado. Pennock and Wagstaff were named the co-lead counsel of the federal steering committee.
Pennock Inspired by Judge to Create MDL Committee with a Majority of Woman Attorneys
Pennock explained that he was inspired to create a female leadership team after hearing Judge Vratil, a former member of the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, talk at a conference on best practices in MDLs. It was held by Duke Law School’s Center for Judicial Studies in September 2014 and Judge Vratil spoke about the lack of women in leadership roles on MDLs historically.
Many plaintiffs steering committees, including in litigations related medical devices and drugs marketed and sold to women, have only a few or minority of female members.
As a result, Pennock reached out to Wagstaff to create a leadership team that would bring a female majority to the power morcellator litigation. They were seeking to have a majority of women on the plaintiffs steering committee, something which had never happened in the history of MDL litigations before.
Pennock and Wagstaff worked together for 10 months to create the committee that was recommended to and approved by Judge Vratil.
Power Morcellators May Spread Undetected Cancers
Power morcellators are laparoscopic devices used in minimally invasive surgeries to remove uterine fibroids or the entire uterus during a hysterectomy. They do this by shredding tissue into smaller pieces to be extracted through small incisions in a woman’s body.
Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Ethicon removed its devices from the market worldwide last year after the FDA issued a safety advisory discouraging the use of power morcellators. This occurred after the FDA determined that power morcellator devices have a capacity to spread undetected hidden cancers and parasitic fibroids.
The FDA estimated that approximately 1 in every 350 women who undergo gynecological surgeries with a laparoscopic power morcellator may have undetected cancer within their uterine fibroids. This cancer can aggressively spread throughout a women’s body when cancer cells spread outside the uterus due to power morcellation
Currently, 30 cases are consolidated in front of Judge Vratil in the Federal District Court of Kansas. Significantly more cases are expected to be filed within the near future.