Network Firm News
Snell & Wilmer Forms New Medical Group
Mike Fimea -- The Arizona Republic -- August 15, 2002
Building on its reputation of defending product liability cases, one of the Valley's biggest law firms has formed a new practice group to handle similar cases in the medical field. Snell & Wilmer's Medical Device and Pharmaceuticals Practice Area encompasses the firm's offices in Arizona and four other Western states. The 13 partners and 13 associates in the group have defended companies in costly litigation over breast implants, diet supplements and other medical products.
"Any product used on the body is not risk free," said Paul Giancola of Snell & Wilmer. "Even after a product receives FDA approval, there can be unforeseen effects."
The effects often result in a class-action lawsuit with plaintiffs scattered through several states. Doug Seitz, Giancola's colleague at Snell & Wilmer, said it's not cost-effective for a company to hire hundreds of lawyers and bring them up to speed on the details of the case.
"They'll pick a core group of attorneys to serve as trial counsel," Seitz said. "There aren't many firms that have the specialized expertise." Few lawyers bring a scientific background to their work. David Faigman, whose 1999 book, Legal Alchemy, explored the relationship between science and the law, noted that fewer than 10 percent of law school students have undergraduate degrees in the natural sciences, math, engineering or related fields.
"Most lawyers have little or no appreciation for the scientific method and lack the ability to judge whether proferred research is good science, bad science or science at all," Faigman wrote. Giancola and Seitz are exceptions. Giancola received an undergraduate degree in biology and physical therapy, and Seitz is an engineering graduate of MIT.
"You can't try these cases unless you've spent weeks and months learning the science," Seitz said. "You look for the top experts in the field, you look at the design issues and the peer reviews (of medical products)." A liability suit related to a medical product can radiate far beyond the courtroom. A product beneficial to one group of people may need to be modified or even taken off from the market.
"The threat of massive litigation can make legitimate products unavailable," said Sheila Carmody, another attorney in the medical devices group. "The real losers are the patients who critically need them." The firm's experience in other liability cases is helpful. Snell & Wilmer was the primary trial counsel for Ford Motor Co. in a lawsuit involving defective tires manufactured by Firestone. The firm also counts several physicians and hospitals among its clientele.
"Most of the product liability suits will settle while health-care litigation is more likely to go to trial," Giancola said. "We'll have two or three cases a year. The two (practice) areas share similar experiences in terms of the technical scientific issues you have to work through."
The Ford case helped Snell &Wilmer establish a process for managing the tidal wave of information necessary to the case. Seitz said the experience is easily adaptable for medical clients. "You need to have a way of obtaining and retaining documents so you don't have an Enron type of problem," he said.
"Once you have that database, you can examine the scientific and design issues. "Snell & Wilmer claims to have the first practice group in the state specializing in medical device issues. If the planned genomics research institute comes to Arizona, Giancola said the firm will get more involved with agreements between product designers and manufacturers, and work with venture capitalists to bring more medical business to the state.
"The big drug manufacturers tend to be located on the (East) coast," Seitz said. "The hope is that we can form a nucleus of those companies in Arizona."