Suing for Diethylstilbestrol (DES) Exposure

Diesthylstillbestrol (DES) was a widely used pregnancy-related drug from the late 1930's until 1971. Use of DES was discontinued when it was discovered that it could lead to serious side-effects in both the mothers who used it and in their children. This article discusses how someone exposed to DES could potentially sue a manufacturer for any resulting harm.

DES: Background

DES is a synthetic form of the female hormone estrogen. Doctors prescribed it from 1938 to 1971 (with less frequency starting in the 1960's) for pregnant women who had problematic pregnancies in the past.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended against DES prescriptions in 1971 when potentially serious health risks were confirmed. According to the American Cancer Society, between five and ten million people were exposed to DES, either as pregnant mothers or as the sons and daughters of those mothers. For more DES information, visit the American Cancer Society's DES webpage.

Side Effects of DES

Mothers who took DES were exposed to a greater risk of developing breast cancer.

Side effects for daughters exposed to DES include:

  • clear cell adenocarcinoma
  • abnormal cells in the cervix and vagina
  • structural changes in the female reproductive tract
  • problems getting pregnant
  • problems during pregnancy
  • premature birth
  • tubal (ectopic) pregnancy
  • miscarriage
  • preeclampsia, and
  • possibly an increased risk of breast cancer, depression and/or early onset of menopause.

Side effects for sons exposed to DES include:

  • epididymal cysts (non-cancerous growths on the testicles) and
  • possibly greater risk of undescended testicles, hypospadias, testicular cancer or prostrate cancer.

There is also a possibility that grandchildren of people exposed to DES can develop certain symptoms, however the research is inconclusive and ongoing.

Learn more about the Dangers of DES Exposure.

Suing for DES Exposure

If you believe you have symptoms caused by DES exposure, your only available legal option, if any, is to sue the manufacturer. According to DES Action USA, there has never been a DES related class action or settlement. However, individuals have successfully sued manufacturers.

The typical DES victim ("plaintiff") suing a DES manufacturer will sue for product liability. In a product liability case, the DES plaintiff will need to prove:

  • a product was sold in an unreasonably dangerous condition or with an inadequate warning
  • the seller expected and intended that the product would reach the consumer without changes to the product, and
  • the plaintiff or the plaintiff's property was injured by the defective product.

However, the biggest hurdle a DES plaintiff will face is proving a particular manufacturer made the DES that was then prescribed to the mother. That's because DES was not under a patent and was made a by a large number of different manufacturers.

The plaintiff's best hope is retrieving medical records that indicate which brand of DES was prescribed. Given the length of time that has passed since doctors in general stopped prescribing DES, chances are the medical records are either destroyed or very hard to find. On top of that, depending on your state, the statute of limitations (the deadline for suing) may have passed.

However, not all states require proof of the specific DES manufacturer and most states will extend the statute of limitations when you don't know about your injury. So, even if the mother's medical records can't be found and the DES was taken over forty years ago, you may still have a case.

The first place to start is asking the mother or other family members if she was prescribed drugs to prevent a miscarriage or simply to maintain a healthy pregnancy.

If the mother or her children who were potentially exposed to DES while in the womb have any of the DES symptoms, the best course of action is to consult with a plaintiff's product liability attorney in your state, preferably one with pharmaceutical liability experience. Without medical records clearly listing the brand of DES prescribed, your case may be difficult to prove, but not necessarily impossible.

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