Canada

$30M lawsuit against sperm bank alleges it misled families about donor's genetic disorder, education

Seven families across Canada are suing an Ontario sperm bank, saying it misled them about their sperm donor's history, which includes a degenerative genetic condition and a false academic background.

The families, from Ontario, Quebec, B.C., Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador allege that Outreach Health Services in Newmarket presented a donor, referred to as Donor 3116, who was a cytogeneticist with an advanced degree, and an impressive health history with no genetic abnormalities. 

The families said Outreach told them donors go through extensive screening and genetic testing. 

However, the claimants allege Donor 3116 is actually a lab tech, without any advanced degrees, who has a genetic disorder that is evident in photographs and could have been confirmed by testing.

The families say they would not have chosen the donor had they known the truth about his background and health.

CBC News has reached out to Outreach for comment and has yet to receive a response. The allegations have yet to be proven in court. 

"The donor was held out to be a healthy, well-educated individual who had gone through extensive screening and testing and was healthy by all accounts. And so these families have each conceived a child from this donor and subsequently found out that the donor suffers from Charcot Marie Tooth disease," said James Fireman, partner at Samfiru Tumarkin LLP.

The Canadian firm is representing the families alongside San Francisco-based Hersh & Hersh.

Charcot Marie Tooth disease (CMT1) is a group of degenerative nerve disorders which primarily affect the arms and legs. As the disease progresses, it can become so severe that some lose the ability to walk. It often is diagnosed in adolescents but can show up as late as mid-adulthood.

We're blessed to have him in our lives, I just wish that he wasn't afflicted with this disease.- Louise Frame, mother of child from Donor 3116

The seven families all conceived a child from Donor 3116. Five of their children have now tested positive for CMT1. 

"For the parents that have children that have this disease or that might have this disease, they are constantly waiting to see if it's going to show up … any time something happens, they're thinking, is this the first symptoms? Is this the first time? And it is something that, you know, really gets underneath every interaction that they have with their children," Fireman said.

Louise Frame and Kristy Kokoski, one of the families taking legal action, say it was heartbreaking to learn their two-year-old son has CMT1. 

"We're still very upset about it," Frame said.

"We're blessed to have him in our lives, I just wish that he wasn't afflicted with this disease."

The families also allege that after Outreach was alerted to the donor's genetic condition and false background, it continued to sell and promote his sperm. 

Each family is seeking roughly $4 million in damages, for a total of more than $30 million.

Previous lawsuits, failed health inspection

"The way fertility is regulated in Canada makes this incredibly concerning for Canadians," said Fireman. "There is a very limited supply of sperm donors that Canadians have access to … so when one of, if not the biggest, supplier of semen in Canada has these issues, it's very, very concerning."

In Canada, it's illegal to compensate sperm donors, making many banks reliant on importing sperm from countries where donors are paid for assisted reproduction. 

A separate set of lawsuits was filed against Outreach in 2016 that alleged a different sperm donor's criminal history and schizophrenia diagnosis were not disclosed. One of those lawsuits, against Outreach's U.S. parent company, will be heard by Georgia's Supreme Court. 

Outreach has also previously failed annual safety inspections with Health Canada, most recently in 2016, for not correctly processing semen that was imported or not keeping records for each container of semen. 

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