Is DES Harmful? Injuries and Your Legal Rights

Although the synthetic estrogen DES has not been in use for decades, it may still crop up as the basis for apersonal injury claim  by a child or grandchild of a woman who had been prescribed DES. Read on to learn more.

What is DES?

Diethylstilbestrol (DES) is a synthetic estrogen. Estrogens are naturally-occurring chemical compounds that are the primary female sex hormones. Synthetic estrogens are currently used as contraceptives and in estrogen replacement therapy for postmenopausal women.

DES was prescribed from 1938 to 1971 to millions of pregnant women for various pregnancy-related issues. Physicians and researchers had thought that DES was a safe and effective drug to prevent miscarriages and premature births. Unfortunately, DES turned out to be ineffective and very dangerous.

Physicians stopped prescribing DES to pregnant women in 1971. Based on a study that had found that DES was a cause of a rare cancer of the vagina (vaginal adenocarcinoma) in girls and young women who had been exposed to DES before birth in the womb because their mothers had taken DES, the Food and Drug Administration issued a bulletin advising that DES could no longer be prescribed to pregnant woman.

What are the Effects of DES?

Subsequent studies have found that the daughters of women who used DES while pregnant have about forty times the risk of developing clear cell adenocarcinoma of the lower genital tract (vagina and cervix) than women whose mothers did not take DES, and that this increased risk of cancer lasts at least until their 40s.

DES has also been found to increase a woman’s risk of premature birth, miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, infertility, early menopause, and breast cancer after age forty, as well as the risk of developing abnormal cells in the cervix and the vagina that are precursors of cancer. However, it should be noted that the cancer risk is very rare even among women exposed to DES. Only one in one thousand women who have been exposed to DES ends up contracting this cancer.

The risk is not only to women whose mothers used DES. Some research has found that men whose mothers used DES during pregnancy have an increased risk of testicular problems such as undescended testicles, growths on the testicles, and inflammation or infection of the testicles. Other research has suggested that DES may cause health problems for the grandsons and granddaughters of women who took DES such as an increased risk of menstrual irregularities, infertility, cancer, and birth defects of the genital tract.

Do I Have a Legal Claim If My Mother or Grandmother Took DES?

As we have seen, dangerous drugs such as DES can cause injury to someone by causing cancer or some other condition, but they can also increase someone’s risk of developing some disease or condition.

A person who has taken or been exposed to a dangerous drug has a legal claim against the manufacturer of such a drug regardless of whether the person has actually developed the condition that the drug can cause. These types of claims are generally called  toxic tort claims.

Even if the person has not yet developed cancer or some other condition, the person still has the legal right to recover damages against the drug’s manufacturer for living with an increased risk of developing a condition that the drug is known to cause. However, the laws differ from state to state. In order to determine what your legal rights are, you should contact a qualified lawyer in your state.

How Long Do I Have to File a Lawsuit Against a DES Manufacturer?

This depends on the relevant  injury statute of limitations  in your state. This alone is a complex legal issue. The relevant state could be your state, the state where your mother or grandmother lived (and/or where they were prescribed DES), or the manufacturer’s state.

Once the proper state has been identified, the next issue is whether your claim falls within the statute of limitations. DES claims fall within what is called the "discovery rule" exception to the statute of limitations. The discovery rule may be phrased differently from state to state, but, in general, it allows the statute of limitations to be extended until the toxic tort victim either actually discovered or reasonably should have discovered that he/she was exposed to a toxic substance or that someone’s exposure to a toxic substance caused him/her harm.

How Can I Prove That My Mother or Grandmother Took DES?

Since no pregnant women in the United States have taken DES since 1971, the passage of time can make these cases very difficult to prove. Your mother or grandmother may have passed away. The physician who prescribed the DES may have passed away. His/her records are almost certainly gone. However, back in the 1970’s, after DES was found to be dangerous, there was a national campaign to find and identify all women who had been prescribed DES while pregnant. As a result of this effort, your mother’s or grandmother’s name may appear on a list of women who had taken DES while pregnant.

What If I Don’t Know Who the Manufacturer Was?

Given the passage of time, it is unlikely that you would know who the manufacturer of your mother’s or grandmother’s DES was. In general, tort victims can only sue the person or entity who actually caused them harm, but, in toxic tort cases, some states have developed limited exceptions to this rule that allow the toxic tort victim to recover some amount of damages from manufacturers of the dangerous drug without regard to whether the victim was exposed to that manufacturer’s drug.

DES litigation, and indeed all toxic tort litigation, is extremely complicated. The laws and procedures differ from state to state. If you believe that your mother or grandmother took DES during their pregnancies, you should contact a qualified toxic tort lawyer as soon as possible.

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