ST. LOUIS -- A judge overstepped judicial boundaries in rebuking three officers of A.H. Robins Co., which marketed and then removed the Dalkon Shield intrauterine birth control device, a federal appeals court has ruled.
Chief U.S. District Judge Miles Lord, who sits in Minnesota -- where many of the Dalkon Shield suits were filed -- called three Robins officers before the bench Feb. 29 to reprimand them even though a private settlement had been reached in the case and no trial was held.
The judge said his action was prompted by the 'tactic of A.H. Robins of insulating its chief operating officers from any knowledge as to the widespread disability and death caused by the company's product.'
The company sold 2.5 million shields from 1971 until June 1974, when they were pulled off the market. Robins never had admitted the shields were defective, but this week placed television and newspaper advertisements urging women still wearing the shields to have them removed.
In ordering Lord's statements be striken from the record, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted Friday that the plaintiffs in the case, Karen and Bruce Gardiner and Deborah and Morris Michalik, had agreed to a pretrial settlement and their suit had been dismissed.
'A court must hear before it condemns,' the appeals court said.
'The reprimand constituted an infringement on the officers' liberty interests because it was a governmental attack on their good name, reputation, honor and community standing,' it said.
Lord had not been required, or expected, to sign the settlement, but wrote 'so ordered' and signed the agreement. Robins officials also asked the appeals court to order Lord's signature removed because it made the settlement a decree subject to contempt action if violated.
The settlement obligated Robins to preserve and produce certain documentary evidence in other cases brought against the company by users of the Dalkon Shield, the target of more than 7,600 suits. Thus, if the company later refused to do so, it would be violating a court order.
The appeals court agreed Lord should not have signed the document, especially after he said in court he was prejudiced against Robins and told the officers that they should 'beg forgiveness.'
The appeals court said Lord's action in the case could prejudice other suits pending.