BERGEN COUNTY HISTORIC JURY VERDICT
It all starts with a retired Anheuser-Busch factory worker, named William (Bill) Snyder from Fairlawn, New Jersey. He is supposed to fade away and quietly die after getting AIDS contaminated platelets during heart surgery. But Bill has other plans. He has two handicapped boys that he wants to know will not end up institutionalized after his death from AIDS. He decides that with the time he has left to fight back for his family. Bill begins the search for a lawyer to take his case. This blog is part one of a series of blogs about how a common guy, Bill, and his “Street Lawyer,” George Baxter, fight the entire blood industry and United States Federal Food and Drug Administration for justice.
The Bergen Cournty courtroom, in Hackensack, New Jersey, is packed with spectators, law clerks and newspaper reporters. Bill breathes through an oxygen mask, as he and George Baxter watch the jurors sit down in the jury box. Judge Isabelle Stark, asks”: “Ladies and Gentlemen, Have you reached a verdict?” George puts a comforting hand on Bill’s shoulder at the counsel table. The jury foreman stands, “Yes, your honor, we have.”
The jury had listened to testimony for over two months that included world renowned defense medical experts, like Dr. Luc Montagnier, director of the Pasture Institute, who later was also awarded a Noble Peace Prize for isolating the viral agent that caused AIDS. The Bergen County jury stuns the world with the only verdict in history against the United States blood industry for negligently distributing AIDS-contaminated blood products to thousands of patients.
George Baxter fights for Bill against the entire billion dollar a year blood industry. He argues that those who are responsible for the safety of the country’s blood supply knowingly allowed the distribution of the contaminated blood products, which fanned the AIDS and hepatitis epidemics. Mr. Baxter’s trial evidence fuels a congressional investigation into the blood industry practices and Federal Food & Drug Administration regulators who were supposed to watch over the industry to protect the public.
The case is Snyder v. American Association of Blood Banks, 282 N.J. Super 23 (App. Div. 1995), affirmed 144 N.J. 269 (1996).
Bill’s lawyer, George Baxter, insists that the blood industry had the responsibility to use the hepitatis B-core antibody test, which the United States Center for Disease proved detected 98% of high risk blood donors who had beed exposed to the AIDS virus. The Center for Disease Control was concerned, if blood went untested it would get into the American blood supply and claim thousands of lives.
The infamous public health meeting that could have changed the history of the AIDS epidemic in the Untited States occurred on January 3, 1984. The Center for Disease Control had proof that the AIDS virus was blood borne and transmitted from person to person by either sexual contact or blood. The blood industry denied it for almost two more years, while killing people, like Bill, with contaminated blood.
THE PUBLIC HEALTH MEETING THAT COULD HAVE CHANGED HISTORY
The CDC’s AIDS Task Force led theJanuary 3, 1984 meeting and presented proof that AIDS was transmitted by blood transfuions. The CDC recommended the hepatitis B-core antibody test to screen blood donors who had high probability of exposure to the AIDS virus and/or hepatitis Non-A, Non-B. Everyone in the blood industry and those responsible for the safety of the national blood supply were there. This included the American Association of Blood Banks and Amercan Red Cross who set the national blood collecting guidelines, and the United States Federal Food and Drug Administration regulators, who were responsible for policing the blood industry. The United States Federal Food and Drug Administration regulates blood products as a biological product.
The CDC’s AIDS Task Force expected the blood industry and FDA to embrace their recommendation that the test would reliably detect donors who were exposed to AIDS as a public health measure, but the blood industry and FDA regulators obstructed the CDC AIDS Task Force. Instead, the blood industry accused the CDC of overreacting to a few cases. The CDC had evidence that hemophiliacs who used blood products were already infected with AIDS. Dr. Donald Francis, a CDC AIDS Task Force member, became so frustrated with the blood industry’s obstruction that he pounded the conference table with both his fists, demanding to know, “How many deaths will it take before you will take action?” Dr. Franicis could not known then that the blood bankers had already decided it was cheaper to pay their transusion AIDS victims’ lawsuits rather than the cost of nationally implimenting the test.
THE TIME-BOMB IS TICKING
Following the CDC’s Atlanta meeting, the blood industry commits to a public campaign for denying the risk of transfusion AIDS. The American Association of Blood Banks and American Red Cross tell doctors, hospital and patients that blood is safe. Blood continues to go untested for AIDS until the Spring 1985, after Luc Monatagnier isolated the viral agent that causes AIDS. Only then, more than a year and a half after the Atlanta meeting, dose the blood industry begin testing their blood products. This delay resulted in thousands of AIDS contaminated blood products being distributed to the American public.
In August, 1984, Bill is transfused with AIDS contaminated blood during his cardiac bypass surgery in New Jersey. In 1984 the diagnosis of AIDS is a death sentence. Bill tells his lawyer, George Baxter, over and over again, “I don’t want my boys institutionalized.”
Bill fears that friends, family, and worse, neighbors will find out that he has AIDS. He reminds George about the Ray brothers, in Arcadia, Florida. The entire town of Arcadia was driven by fear of AIDS. After the children win a court decision to be allowed back in school an arsonist sets fire the Ray family’s house. As the Ray family collected the burned and charred belongings from the front lawn by-passers yell for them to get out of town. Bill says, “I don’t want my boys treated like that. Look what they did to those boys’ family. They burned their house down.” But Bill finds the courage to go public and sue those responsible for giving him AIDS contaminated blood. “Just keep my boys out of an institution when I’m gone.”
It was difficult for Bill to find a lawyer who would take his case. Everyone thought there was no AIDS test until the Spring 1985. Bill went from lawyer to lawyer asking someone to take his case. Then a friend tells him to meet with George Baxter, a young, Bergen County lawyer, in Hackensack, New Jersey. Baxter tells Bill, “Bill, no one will take your case because there was no test for AIDS when you were transfused.” Bill angrily retorted, “But what about my boys? What will happen to them? George Baxter said, “All right, Bill. I will look into what happened to you. I can’t promise you have a case, but I promise to investigate it.“
George Baxter learnd that Stanford Univerity blood center had been testing blood donors for AIDS when Bill was transfused in August 1984. Stanford’s testing its donors was proof to Baxter that it could have been done by the other blood banks. Baxter learned the blood industry conspired to “stick together” against the CDC’s precautions.
Baxter flies to California to met with two key people of the AIDS epidemic, Dr. Marcus Conant and Dr. Edgar Engeman.
Dr. Marcus Conant, a San Francisco physician who had diagnosed the first AIDS cases, and was instrumental in getting San Francisco to close the bath houses. Astonishingly, Dr. Conant held a public press conference at the University of California Medical Center where he called on the blood banks to use the CDC’s recommendation to test donors. “They were killing my patients with AIDS contaminated blood. We physicians would cure our patients with whatever underlying illness they had, but then the contaminated blood killed of AIDS,” George Baxter recalls Dr. Conant telling him.
Dr. Edgar Engleman, director of Stanford’s blood bank agree that it was negligent for the other blood bank to not screen donors for AIDS.
Baxter returns to New Jersey and heads for the the Bergen County Court law library and rifles the shelves of the law library searching for a case to refute the blood industry’s conspiracy that fixed the industry standard of care. He finds the T.J. Hooper Case. It is an old case from before radios are used on cargo ships. Radio are still new and most cargo ships were not equipped with radios. When a storm causes the T.J. Hooper to lose its cargo, the owners sued its captan. The plaintiffs argued that if the T.J. Hooper had a radio the skipper would have learned about the storm. The defendant argued that radios are new and not the industry’s standard of care to equip their boats with them. The court ruled that sometimes an industry lags behind technology. That the industry’s conduct should not decide what is reasonable and prudent.
Armed with this T.J.Hooper case, George decides to sue the entire blood industry based on what is known in law as the “reasonable and prudent ” standard of care. He knows that blood industry will argue it was not the “industry standard of care” to screen blood donors for AIDS when Bill as transfused.
Determining the rights of patients to sue the blood industry required two appeals that are reported decisions of the New Jersey Appellate Court and Supreme Court.
“Bill, this is a long shot, but I will try to help you to keep your boys out of an institution, ” George tells Bill. George Baxter is a veteran who had served with the United States Marine Corps during Viet Nam. He is haunted by the senselessness of it all and especially with how privileged aristocratic bureaucrats make bad policy decisions we all have to live with.
Convincing witnesses to step forward to testify is a problem. No industry people will admit that they were negligent and responsible for distributing thousands of AIDS- contaminated blood products that killed patients. The first hero in the AIDS epidemic is Dr. Conant whose San Francisco medical practice had treated over 3000 patients. Dr. Conant agreed to testify and Baxter filed the first transfusion AIDS case in New Jersey.
Another problem for George was how to fund the case. To take on a case of this magnitude and challenge the entire United States blood industry would cost money. There will be depositions and experts and trial. And, this is before the days of Lawsuit Funding companies, like Lance Lawsuit Funding, who will invest in these riskier cases. So as Bill’s attorney, George lays everything on the line for the case. He misses mortgage payments and credit card payments, even the office rent had to wait while George fought the industry.
Baxter needs to expose the blood industry’s negligence and conspiracy against the CDC’s earlier warning to screen donors at risk for AIDS. Three expert witnesses step forward into the lion’s den: Dr. Marcus Conant, the San Francisco physician; Dr. Donald Francis, the CDC’s AIDS Task Force; and, Dr. Edgar Englemen, the director of the Stanford University hospital blood bank. George relied on them to convince the Bergen County jury that the American Association of Blood Banks, the entire blood industry and the United States Federal Food and Drug Administration, knowingly, if not negligently, distributed AIDS contaminated blood products to thousands of people.
In part two of the blog, George Baxter recounts the Snyder v. American Association of Blood Banks trial that resulted in the only jury verdict in history to hold the industry negligent.