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Nearly two years ago, a Chicago minister made a rare and challenging vow in an Illinois courtroom: to make the nation’s hospitals and blood banks legally responsible for notifying blood transfusion patients that they might be infected with hepatitis C. The Rev. John David Sturman recently hit a roadblock when a judge dismissed his class action against a local hospital and the American Association of Blood Banks (AABB). Sturman, diagnosed with the virus in 1998, believes he contracted it while being treated for leukemia at a Chicago hospital in the 1980s, and argues he should have been notified of his potential risk. Sturman’s suit names only one hospital, and specifically asks that any persons in Illinois who had blood transfusions prior to 1992 be notified about a potential infection. However, because the suit also names the AABB, whose members include hospitals and blood banks from all over the country, transfusion patients nationwide would be affected. But Cook County Circuit Judge David Lichtenstein ruled that Sturman’s claim that hospitals and blood banks have a duty to notify patients of a potential infection is “legally insufficient.” Sturman v. Rush-Presbyterian-St. Lukes Medical Center, No. 00-L-011069 (Cook Co., Ill., Cir. Ct.). The ruling gave a boost to the nation’s blood community, which has been struggling for a decade to track down hundreds of thousands of people who have the disease but may not know it. “The judge clearly understood that the courts should not become tangled up in such a sensitive and complex area and that the AABB has no duty to the general public to set any particular standard for its members,” said defense attorney John Sweeney, of Chicago’s Miles & Stockbridge, who argued on behalf of the AABB to have the motion dismissed. While the judge dismissed Sturman’s class action, he did rule that he would “allow Sturman to proceed with his individual claims against the defendant.” Sturman’s lawyers say they plan to appeal. “It’s not even close to over,” said Jay Edelson, one of four lawyers representing Sturman. “Frankly, we were disappointed by the court’s decision. We are extremely confident that when the appellate court hears [the case] that it will agree with us. “What we’re asking of the defendants is to notify people who don’t even know that they’ve been harmed to get tested,” said Edelson, of Chicago’s Blim & Edelson. “All [the hospital] had to do is send [Sturman] a letter and say, ‘Get tested.’” But the defense argues that the blood community, under the guidance of the federal government, has taken aggressive measures to notify patients. One of those measures involves participation in a national awareness campaign launched in 1998 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommending hospitals and blood banks to notify recipients of contaminated blood that they might be infected. The blood community also is taking part in a federal notification program requiring blood centers to work with transfusion services to identify certain high-risk donors and notify blood recipients of their possible risk of hepatitis C. In getting the class action dismissed, Sweeney said he argued three points: that the Food and Drug Administration had provided guidance to the blood community and was considering further regulations in this area, that the AABB had set standards for its members advising them of the FDA guidelines and that the AABB should be free to set such standards for its voluntary members as it sees fit without judicial coercion. But Edelson maintains that health care providers have a moral and legal obligation to notify patients who may have received tainted blood before 1992, when screening tests for the virus became widespread. He also argues that the AABB should pay for hepatitis-C testing for patients who may be infected, and is seeking an undetermined amount in damages for his client, who has pledged to use any money to help other patients. “What’s so infuriating about all of this is that there really are effective treatments out there for hepatitis C,” he said. “You catch it early and it truly saves people’s lives.”

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