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Gassman v. Eli Lilly and Co.

January 5, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. United States District Judge


Plaintiff, Cynthia Lee Gassman, brings this products liability action against Eli Lilly and Company ("Eli Lilly") alleging she suffered injuries resulting from her embryonic exposure to Diethylstilbestrol ("DES"), a pharmaceutical produced and sold by Eli Lilly. Presently before the court is Eli Lilly's motion for summary judgment [#11]. Upon consideration of the motion, the opposition thereto, and the record of this case, the court concludes that the motion must be denied.


A. Factual History

DES is a synthetic estrogen that was developed and prescribed in the mid-twentieth century to prevent miscarriages and premature deliveries. An estimated five to ten million individuals in the United States were exposed to DES between 1938, the year it was first prescribed, and 1971, the year that the FDA advised physicians to stop prescribing it to pregnant women because of its links to a rare vaginal cancer in female children.*fn1 According to the Center for Disease Control, medical research over the past thirty years has confirmed that women who were prescribed DES while pregnant have an increased risk of breast cancer and the women born of DES patients have increased risks of vaginal and cervical cancer, reproductive tract structural differences, pregnancy complications, and infertility. See CDC, ABOUT DES,

In 1968, Gassman's mother, Lois Tholke, was prescribed DES by her treating obstetrician while she was pregnant with Gassman. Tholke remembers ingesting "a small white pill," but does not recall any other identifying characteristics of the DES pills she ingested or any information regarding the pills' manufacturer. At that time, DES was produced by over 75 companies, many of whom produced DES in the form of a small white pill. The current owner of the pharmacist where Tholke filled her prescriptions in 1968 stated that, although he did not own the store at the time, he personally observed that "the sole and exclusive brand of DES in the store was the Eli Lilly Brand, from the late 60s through the time I actually bought the store" in 1975. Pl.'s Opp'n, Exh. 25 ¶ 8.

On September 14, 1968, Gassman was born in Mineola, New York. In her early teens, she learned from her mother that she had been exposed to DES in utero. In October 1990, almost ten years after learning of her DES exposure, Gassman married her husband, Daniel Gassman. Less than a year later, Mr. Gassman was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a cancer that starts in lymphatic tissue. As a result of this diagnosis, Mr. Gassman was required to undergo chemotherapy treatments that would ultimately leave him sterile. Prior to the beginning of his treatment, Mr. Gassman had samples of his sperm frozen so that he and his wife could attempt artificial insemination at a later date.

Between July 1997 and June 1998, Gassman underwent three Intra-Uterine Inseminations with her husband's frozen sperm. Ultimately, none of the three inseminations resulted in pregnancy. Prior to these procedures, in May 1997, Gassman met with Dr. Serena Chen for an initial fertility consultation. Dr. Chen's notes from that consultation indicate that she "[r]eviewed with patients [the Gassmans] concerns about DES exposure, such as increased risk for poor pregnancy outcome, such as ectopic pregnancy, pre-term labor, cervical incompetence, etc." Def.'s Mot, Exh. 5. Gassman denies that she was told in any definitive manner that DES caused her infertility or even that she was infertile.

In or about June 1999, Dr. Chen told Gassman that she "had a T-shaped uterus from DES exposure." Id., Exh. 3 ("Gassman Dep."), at 69. Dr. Chen's medical records from July 5, 1999, indicate that she "reviewed DES" and its "effect on fertility." Id., Exh. 6. Gassman denies that Dr. Chen ever indicated that Gassman's T-shaped uterus or her DES exposure were related to her problems becoming pregnant. In fact, Gassman alleges that her doctors informed her that her chances of becoming pregnant using her husband's sperm were still good. She states that, at least until September 2000, she believed that her difficulties becoming pregnant were not a result of her in utero DES exposure, but rather were "due to [her husband's] chemotherapy." Pl.'s Opp'n, Exh. 20 ("Gassman Statement") ¶ 3.

Gassman claims that it was not until 2002, "at the earliest," that she ever "had the slightest idea or suspicion that [her] injuries or infertility were caused by the wrongful conduct of the company that made the DES [her] mother took while pregnant with [her], or that anyone was suing over DES injuries, or that the manufacturer had done anything wrong." Id. ¶ 4. Gassman indicates that she did not attempt to educate herself about the effects of DES "because there was nothing I knew to investigate. . . . I knew I was affected by DES, but there was still very positive a chance to become pregnant. There was nothing to investigate, it was a side effect of being born." Gassman Dep. at 26. She also suggests that she did not investigate the possibility of a lawsuit because she "thought the company had tested the drug before they put it on the market," and because she "believed the drug saved [her] life." Gassman Statement ¶ 5. She states that she first learned about DES lawsuits in 2002. Prior to that date, she alleges that she never researched DES on the internet, never read legal or medical magazines about DES, never watched any television program about DES, never listened to any radio show about DES, and never joined any DES support group. Id. ¶¶ 6--10.

B. Procedural History

Gassman filed suit in D.C. Superior Court on February 19, 2003, naming five pharmaceutical companies-Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. ("Bristol-Myers"), Pharmacia and Upjohn Company ("Pharmacia"), and Dart Industries Inc. ("Dart")-as co-defendants. Her complaint alleges that Gassman suffered injuries including cervical and uterine malformations resulting in infertility as a result of her embryonic exposure to DES. She seeks compensatory and punitive damages against the pharmaceutical companies under theories of negligence, strict liability, breach of warranty, and misrepresentation.

Because both Gassman and Bristol-Myers were citizens of New York, the case as originally filed was not removable. On December 2, 2003, a Praecipe of Dismissal was filed in D.C. Superior Court, dismissing Bristol-Myers and Pharmacia with prejudice. Less than a week later, GlaxoSmithKline was also dismissed from the case. Soon thereafter, on December 19, 2003, Eli Lilly removed the case to federal court. Dart was eventually dismissed with prejudice on January 14, 2004, leaving Eli Lilly as the sole defendant.

Eli Lilly filed the present motion for summary judgment on December 1, 2004, arguing that all of Gassman's claims should be dismissed because they are barred by the applicable statute of limitations and because Gassman cannot identify Eli ...

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