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Lawyers lay out course in HIV case

Lawyers planning to sue the Tampa Bay area's largest blood bank over an HIV infection released a few more details Wednesday about their client and their legal strategy.

But they didn't file the suit, saying it was still being drafted.

The suit, which the lawyers plan to file in Hillsborough County, will allege that a 24-year-old Pinellas County man was negligently infected by tainted blood during abdominal surgery at Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital in Tarpon Springs. The man also plans to sue the hospital.

That was the word from attorney Hank Uiterwyk as television cameras and reporters jammed into his office in downtown Tampa.

The suit contains a list of alleged misdeeds by Florida Blood Services and Helen Ellis: The blood donor was improperly screened. The blood was mishandled. Testing was insufficient. The client was not warned adequately of the risk.

Uiterwyk did outline one part of his strategy: A 2-year-old article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that calls into question blood-testing methods used by FBS and almost every other blood bank in the country.

The donor, who has never been identified, gave blood in March, days after being infected with HIV, blood bank officials said. The virus had not built up in the blood enough to register on tests.

FBS tests blood by blending 16 samples together in one batch. This saves money and is the standard procedure recommended by the test kit manufacturer and the Food and Drug Administration.

The JAMA study noted that fewer early-infection blood donations slip by undetected if each blood sample is tested individually.

FBS had no choice, said vice president J.B. Gaskins. When the donor's blood was tested in March, the blood bank was part of a nationwide clinical trial designed to find the best test. The FDA required the batch tests, Gaskins said. Even with batch tests, the odds of HIV infection through transfusion are 2 million to 1 or higher.

FBS officials earlier said they reviewed their records and found no mishandling of the donor's blood or of the screening questions. The donor did not know he or she was infected.

Ellis spokeswoman Nancy Johnson Ryan declined to comment.

Uiterwyk wouldn't identify his client. The suit will name John Doe and John Doe Jr. as plaintiffs, which the law allows. John Doe Jr. refers to the man's 6-month-old son. The man's fiancee was tested and is not infected with HIV.

The man hired the Kennedy Law Group in Tampa late last week, which brought in Uiterwyk's firm, Abrahamson and Uiterwyk, as co-counsel.

One other person, an unidentified 60-year-old, also was infected by the donor's blood.

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