I remember lying on the floor hemorrhaging, while phoning for help,” says one victim. “When I had gotten pregnant, I thought the damn thing just didn’t work but it was worse than that. I was in so much pain I couldn’t stand.” The “damn thing” was the Dalkon Shield, an intrauterine contraceptive device that for 10 years has been controversial. More than 11,000 women have claimed that it failed to prevent pregnancies, and in some cases caused spontaneous abortions, pelvic infections, sterility and even death.
Almost three months ago the A.H. Robins Company, the Richmond, Va. pharmaceutical giant that produced the device in the early 1970s, launched an unprecedented $4 million recall ad campaign, offering to pay the cost of having the shield removed from women who may still be using it. More than 17,000 women have responded, and recently the firm was receiving 100 to 150 anxious, angry telephone calls a day.
Why did the company suddenly stress the dangers of its own product? Some company critics point to Roger Tuttle, 54, a former Robins executive whose subpeonaed testimony was instrumental in a $38 million Minnesota settlement against Robins last fall. Once the lead Dalkon Shield attorney for A.H. Robins, Tuttle testified that on company orders he had Robins employees search out documents questioning the IUD’s safety. He claims the documents were later destroyed. Now a law professor at Oral Roberts University, Tuttle says he was unloading a secret that he had carried since leaving Robins nine years ago. Why hadn’t he spoken out earlier? “Nobody ever asked me before,” Tuttle says, explaining that he previously felt constrained by attorney-client privilege.
Robins executives heatedly deny destroying documents, labeling Tuttle’s allegations the “absurd” imaginings of a “disgruntled former employee.” For his part, Tuttle, the father of two daughters, contends that he’s finally acting on his Christian convictions. A born-again Methodist even when he worked for the company, he looks back on the five years when he earned $30,000 annually defending Robins as a time “when I still had a longing in my heart for the almighty corporate dollar.” Now he earns more but says, “The Lord’s leading.”
Tuttle is also motivated by anger at a company that he feels made him its scapegoat. “A flood of suits started hitting in the early 70s,” he recalls, “and they ignored my pleas for help.” Tuttle was blamed for losing the first jury verdict in 1975, costing the company and its insurer, Aetna, $85,000. Aetna demanded Tuttle’s scalp. He was removed as Dalkon Shield counsel and left Robins a year later. “I fought, bled and died for them,” he charges. “Then they said, ‘Hit the road.’ ”
Today Robins denies any cover-up, though the company pulled the device off the market in mid-1974, after the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta linked the IUD to 13 deaths. By then, 4.5 million of the IUDs had been sold worldwide, 2.5 million of which Robins officials believe were actually used. Ten years later, 3,600 suits are pending, which may make the Dalkon Shield one of the most disastrous products in corporate liability history. A.H. Robins has spent $297 million in legal fees and claims settlements over an item that, according to John Taylor, vice-president for public affairs, “earned $500,000 in profits. It’s a crazy world,” he complains. “Canada and the U.K. don’t have contingency fees,” he adds, referring to the hefty percentages paid to lawyers who win damages. Taylor hopes the ads will “put an end to it. Then the plaintiffs’ attorneys can go on to chain-saw accidents.”
The Dalkon Shield may be a gold mine for lawyers, but Tuttle isn’t aiming to become rich as a witness. Although paid $125 an hour plus expenses for four days of testimony in Minnesota, he has since turned down 15 requests to testify elsewhere, referring lawyers to a videotape of his Minnesota deposition. “I want to be shucked of this thing forever,” Tuttle says. He now wears his Brooks Brothers suits cinched at the waist with a broad-buckled cowboy belt and exhorts his classes, “Stalk out in a rage if you believe a client’s wishes are unethical. Don’t hang around.”