New cries have arisen in response to the accidental use of hydraulic-fluid-tainted surgical instruments on DUHS patients in late 2004.

A group of 14 patients is suing Duke University Health System because they believe that studies Duke conducted to determine the level of harm caused by the mistake were flawed.

For two months in late 2004, physicians at Duke Raleigh and Durham Regional hospitals used surgical instruments that were mistakenly cleaned with hydraulic elevator fluid to operate on their patients. During the fall of that year, an Automatic Elevator Co. employee had drained hydraulic fluid from a Duke Raleigh elevator into empty buckets labeled as detergent for surgical instruments. Employees from Cardinal Health 200, Inc. took the containers and transported them back for use as cleaning fluid at Duke Raleigh, as well as Durham Regional, Duke Hospital and Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem. However, Duke Raleigh and Durham Regional were the only ones to use the fluid.

After the mistake was recognized following complaints from doctors and nurses of greasy instruments, Duke conducted studies to determine how toxic the instruments were and if patients developed any new health problems as a result of the exposure. From these studies, Duke claims that little to no harm was done to the patients. According to the toxicology report, after standard sterilization routines only traces of hydraulic fluid remained on the tools before surgeries were conducted.

Of the 3,648 exposed to the fluid, numerous patients claimed to have suffered health problems with multiple lawsuits following. Patients have alleged that Duke concealed and misrepresented information that would have ultimately helped them receive care for the health problems they suffered as a result of the exposure. Patients have also claimed that Duke attempted to cover up the incident by not reporting it and by destroying evidence.

The new lawsuit asserts that at least 1,000 patients tracked during the study had not been exposed to the fluid, thus potentially down-playing the negative side effects of exposure. They patients also claim that some of the instruments provided by Duke for the toxicology tests were clean, including some dated before the elevator fluid mix-up, skewing the results to show less contamination.

The lawsuit involving these patients is one of several against DUHS, with some cases settling without trial. Doug Stokke, assistant vice president of communications for DUHS, said he could not comment on active litigation.