Lawsuit claims University Hospitals knew about problems with cryogenic tank at fertility clinic

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CLEVELAND -- A lawsuit filed against University Hospitals alleges the hospital knew about problems with a cryogenic tank in its fertility clinic for months before the temperature inside the tank increased, destroying 4,000 frozen eggs and embryos that were stored in it.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Kate and Jeremy Plants, who lost embryos in the failure, was unsealed by a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas judge this week after both parties agreed to redactions. It provides the first public glimpse of allegations detailing what may have led to the March 2018 disaster inside the Ahuja Medical Center fertility clinic.

The suit names dozens of parties including University Hospitals, cryogenic tank manufacturer Custom Biogenic Systems (CBS), the company that provided alarm system services and the provider of liquid nitrogen tanks.

The lawsuit states that as of 2015, UH knew or should have known eggs and embryos “should be divided up and stored in more than a single tank” and claims the fertility clinic was understaffed.

The suit suggests safeguards were not in place and states a lab director based in Florida “who had been monitoring embryo tank temperatures daily for months, ceased such monitoring” in September 2017.

It alleges CBS tanks had a critical flaw in which “over time, ice formed on the solenoid valve, which impaired the function of the tank with regard to temperature elevation and nitrogen level as well as gauge accuracy.”

It states the “ice plug risk was known to CBS for years and specifically became known to UH” in the summer of 2017, before which CBS failed to notify UH about required or preventative maintenance to prevent such ice buildup.

The suit said UH began experiencing ice problem in its fertility clinic storage tank in the fall of 2017 and waited months before moving at-risk eggs and embryos to a new tank, in part, due to understaffing.

The suit maintains “gauges and alarms could not be trusted due to the icing problem," remote alarm functions on the tank “were either turned off and/or disabled” and “to reduce the alarm reporting volume, UH even went so far as to increase the tank temperature at which the alarm would be triggered.”

In January 2018, about two months before the fertility clinic failure, the lawsuit states the same tank experienced a temperature spike and a remote alarm system never sounded, but the incident was not investigated.

That same month, the lawsuit claims UH ordered four new tanks, but they were not operational at the time of the fertility clinic incident.

The lawsuit also claims the lab repeatedly ran out of liquid nitrogen for its tanks, including on March 2, 2018, just before the tank’s temperature rose above freezing, destroying the eggs and embryos.

The suit states the lab was unstaffed at the time of the failure on March 3 and 4, a remote alarm was not functioning, and the problem wasn’t discovered until an employee arrived the following Monday and heard a local alarm sounding.

Custom Biogenic Systems provided a statement denying any responsibility for what happened.

“CBS’s storage freezer did not fail or malfunction at any time, nor did it have a flaw or defect. Reports or allegations that any ice build-up in the freezer caused elevated temperatures are incorrect. We will respond with further detail in court at the appropriate time. Respecting the existing court orders in these cases, CBS will have no further comment at this time,” the company said in a statement.

University Hospitals provided the following statement:

“As University Hospitals works with the court and counsel in moving these cases towards resolution, we do so respecting the court’s order that these cases should be tried in a courtroom, and not in the media.  Therefore, we will not comment further.  University Hospitals remains deeply sorry for the impact this event has had, and how it has affected our Fertility Center patients and families.”

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