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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

3rd Circuit Court of Appeals: “Defective Sperm” can’t be the basis for a product liability lawsuit

While it makes for a good headline, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Donovan v. Idant Laboratories isn’t a laughing matter for the parties involved.  The plaintiff, Pennsylvania resident Donna Donovan, sought services from New York-based Idant Laboratories in 1994 after being assured that prospective sperm donors undergo rigorous screening which greatly exceeded mandated standards. 

Donovan’s daughter, Brittany, was born two years later.  She was diagnosed as a “Fragile X” carrier the following year by the family’s physician, and Donovan stated that she noticed abnormalities in her daughter’s development.  “Fragile X” is a genetic mutation which is known to cause an array of developmental disabilities, including mental retardation and behavioral disorders.    Brittany inherited it from the sperm used to conceive her.   

The plaintiff’s lawyers contend that sperm (at least when purchased from a sperm bank) is a product.  At issue is whether the sperm bank should be liable for the quality of its product and be obliged to financially support the effects of a mutation on the conceived “victim.”

Writing for The Legal Intelligencer, Shannon Duffy reports that the Court found that “genetic defects in sperm from a sperm bank cannot form the basis for a products liability suit.”  Allowing such a claim “would be tantamount to recognizing a claim of ‘wrongful life.’”

The suit wasn’t filed until a decade after the child’s birth.  In addition to exceeding an acceptable timeframe, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s inference that the child’s “genetic makeup” is her injury. 

The plaintiff doesn’t explicitly state that she would have had an abortion if she knew of the sperm’s deficiency.   

The initial case appeared before U.S. District Judge Thomas O’Neill Jr., who initially ruled in favor of the plaintiff, stating that “the sale of sperm is considered a product and is subject to strict liability.”  He reversed himself two months later and dismissed the case entirely, recognizing that it would open “wrongful life” issues, and that significant time had elapsed since the mutation was discovered. 

The appellate Court’s decision was wise.  At what point does personal imperfection become an injury for which another must be held accountable?  


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