James Peterson

CHARLESTON - It's hard to put a human face on a number as large as 13,000.

Charleston attorney James Peterson has seen a couple of those faces, though. And he's seen the fear in them.

"They and their families are very scared. Their doctors are afraid for them," said Peterson, who is representing two individuals suing several companies over an organ-snatching scheme. "It's tragic. These people didn't bargain for that."

Two of the possibly thousands of people affected by Biomedical Tissue Service's question-raising human tissue-gathering project are West Virginians who recently filed civil lawsuits in U.S. District Court in Charleston. The Food and Drug Administration estimates that 13,000 people received transplants with tissue obtained by Biomedical Tissue Services, which is under fire for allegedly snatching organs illegally from funeral homes.

Peterson, of Hill, Peterson, Carper, Bee and Dietzler, is the man heading the cases of David Ramella and Jami Frazier. He's anticipating several more West Virginians coming forward with concerns.

"We don't know (how big the problem is)," he said. "We only know the numbers the FDA has put out. They indicated that there are potentially 13,000 body parts implanted in bodies of people. Another number thrown around is there are 100,000 parts on shelves ready to be implanted."

The suits also name Regeneration Technologies, Inc.; Spinalgraft technologies, LLC; Medtronic, Inc.; Medtronic Sofamor Danek, Inc.; Medtronic Sofamor Danek, U.S.A., Inc.; Tutogen Medical, Inc.; Lifecell Corporation; Lost Mountain Tissue bank; and the Blood and Tissue Center of Central Texas as defendants.

Those companies are charged with distributing, selling and supplying the human tissue harvested by Biomedical Tissue Services from early 2003-September 2005.

No hospitals or doctors were named as defendants because, Peterson said, they didn't do anything wrong. Those named had an obligation to check the tissue received for disease but did not, he said.

Also, none of the funeral homes that may have been party to Biomedical Tissue Services' alleged activities were named.

There's a simple reason for that. Peterson explained that many of the funeral homes in question are filing for bankruptcy.

If those homes were to be named as defendants, then Peterson could not go forth with collecting information on any of the defendants until the funeral homes' bankruptcy proceedings had finished.

Another technicality that has risen is Regeneration Technologies' petition for all cases to be brought before the Multi-District Litigation Panel, which consists of seven district and circuit judges.

Each case, nation-wide, will be lumped into one for pre-trial purposes only.

"It's a financial thing," Peterson said. "They don't want to hire 50 different sets of law firms for what was illegally done. They want to conserve money and hopefully survive this thing.

"It streamlines it for everyone. I'm not being critical of it. It's fine with us."

Peterson is no stranger to large cases, either. He won a 2005 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award for his work on Leach v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company, a class action lawsuit in which DuPont was sued for contaminating the drinking water of Mid-Ohio Valley residents living near DuPont's plant in Parkersburg and paid a $107.6 million settlement.

He was one of six West Virginians to receive the prestigious award, along two others from his firm - Harry G. Deitzler and R. Edison Hill

In this case, Peterson is again representing a group of people that had no idea what was being done to them as it was being done.

And for the recipients of possibly contaminated tissue, it might be a while before they discover what exactly has been done to them. Peterson cited an example of a woman who had bone graft surgery for her scoliosis in 1984 and developed HIV because of contaminated tissue, though it did not surface for four years after the surgery.

For now, consequences will stay unpredictable.

"Nobody's done a study, that's the problem," Peterson said. "Nobody has done a definitive study that says when you're out of the woods, whether it be six days, six months or six years.

"These people are constantly in fear of what might develop. That's the tragedy of the situation."

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