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War Between the States: Product Liability in New York vs. Pennsylvania

Submitted by Anonymous on Apr 3rd, 2009

Most states have a grudge against another. Texas and Oklahoma. Massachusetts and Maine. Georgia and Alabama. Ohio and Michigan. Southern California and Northern California. And for this week: New York and Pennslyvania.

What current battle was fought and decided this week, you ask?

A US District Court, Eastern Pennsylvania, has rules that a sperm bank can be held liable for contract and tort claims with regard to product liability.

Take a second, think about that one. Defective sperm? Crossing state lines?

Thirteen year-old Brittany Donovan is a mentally retarded child who suffers effects of Fragile X Syndrome;, a genetic mutation affecting neuronal development. It is clear the mutation came from the donor sperm as the mother suffers none of the symptoms and has undergone genetic testing to confirm.

Two major questions are raised in the case: which law to apply (Pennsylvania or New York) and who, precisely, has standing to sue the sperm bank for damages?

The court ruled New York law to prevail in this case. The sale of the sperm occured in New York, and though fertilization occured in Pennsylvania, New York has a greater interest in regulating its corporations than Pennsylvania has in providing redress for harms to its citizens. The conflict of laws is significant: under New York law, blood and blood derivatives are clearly exempted from product liability claims; under Pennsylvaia law, blood and human tissues are exempted from claims. Essentially, had Pennsylvania law prevailed, a suit for defective sperm would have been dismissed.

As for who can sue the sperm bank: there are two potential victims in this scenario - the mother and the daughter. The court ruled that under a Pennsylvania Minors Tolling Statute, a child has up to two years after the eighteenth birthday to bring claims for tort-based harms sustained. Brittany can continue her claims for defective sperm under the argument that the sperm bank had a duty to screen sperm for known genetic conditions, and the failure of this duty caused her harm.

The mother, however, does not have standing to sue, simply based on statute of limitations. Often, tort claims are limited with regard to when a plaintiff knew or should have known of a harm caused by another party. Brittany, the mother, and the donor sperm underwent genetic testing in 1998, identifying Brittany's harms as Fragile X Syndrome and the donor sperm as the carrier. Under this analysis, the mother would have had until 2000 to bring a valid claim against the sperm bank.

And so the suit continues. Though we expect a settlement between Brittany and the sperm bank, one that likely won't be public nor admit liability. But never underestimate the resolve and sense of justice of a teenager. Nor the heightening conflicts between state laws - and state perceptions.