UPDATED: Federal judge weighs motion to dismiss HeLa lawsuit against Thermo Fisher
The story of Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cell line and her family’s fight for justice caught the attention of national media outlets and Hollywood years ago. Now, the case faces an uncertain fate as a Baltimore federal judge considers tossing the case.
After a hearing on Tuesday, Judge Deborah Boardman is weighing Thermo Fisher’s motion to dismiss the claims against it on the grounds that the statute of limitations has passed, and the continuing harm doctrine does not apply. Boardman is grappling with the “extraordinarily unique facts” of the case, according to Maryland Matters, which first reported the news.
The case traces back to Lacks, a Black cervical cancer patient who was admitted to a racially segregated ward at Johns Hopkins back in 1951. While under anesthesia — and without her informed consent — her tissue was harvested and cultivated into a cell line that could survive and reproduce indefinitely in lab conditions, unlike other cell samples which die shortly after being removed from the body.
While Lacks died in 1951, her cells have been aided major medical breakthroughs, including in vitro fertilization and the polio vaccine, among others.
The estate of Henrietta Lacks filed a complaint back in 2021, claiming that Thermo Fisher continues to profit from the cells, known as HeLa cells, without permission. The case has since played out in the public eye, becoming the subject of the bestselling book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” in 2010 and a movie starring Oprah Winfrey in 2017.
Thermo Fisher motioned for dismissal in February, arguing that the statute of limitations is up and the estate cannot allege an underlying tort. The company also claimed it was not a bona fide purchaser of the cells for value.
The Lacks estate filed a motion in response, arguing that each instance in which Thermo Fisher sells the products constitutes a separate act of unjust enrichment.
“The statute of limitations clock for an unjust enrichment claim cannot start running until the defendant is enriched, even if the unjust conduct that led to the defendant’s enrichment occurred before the statute of limitations period,” the motion states.
Several amici curiae, or “friend of the court” briefs have been filed against Thermo Fisher’s motion to dismiss. One brief from the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the National Health Law Program and the National Women’s Law Center argues that the unethical origins of HeLa cells are well known by the company, yet the company continues to commercialize them.
Caprice Roberts, a law professor at George Washington University who filed an amici curiae brief in April, told Endpoints News that she expects the Lacks’ complaint to survive the motion to dismiss, adding that the defendants are mistaken on the law of unjust enrichment.
“Defendants also maintain that all of this occurred too long ago such that witnesses may be dead and evidence stable,” she said in an email. “Yet, reasons exist for permitting this case to go forward to discovery especially given the potential concealment of information that is relevant to the plaintiff’s ability to show the connection of unjust profits from the unconsented procedures to the defendant’s ill-gotten gains. To deny plaintiff the ability to move forward at this early phase, would foreclose discovery and send the wrong incentives to those in positions of power.”
Should the plaintiffs prevail, Roberts said it will be “a historic moment for the family of Henrietta Lacks and the potential force of the law of unjust enrichment and the remedy of disgorgement.”
An attorney representing the Lacks estate declined to comment, and lawyers representing the Lacks estate were not immediately available to Endpoints.
The story has been updated to reflect comments from Caprice Roberts.