MANKATO — What started as seemingly harmless call from an attorney to a former client ended with a nearly $1 million settlement and a change in state policy.
Scott Kelly, Randall Knutson and Daniel Bellig of Farrish Johnson Law Office in Mankato filed suit on behalf of 100 people who claimed the state had illegally retained residual blood samples and used them for a variety of medical research. On Monday the firm announced its clients had reached a settlement, and that the state would pay $975,000 in attorneys' fees for the 21 families who sued.
The Minnesota Department of Health says it is now destroying more than 1 million blood samples gathered as part of its newborn screening program, which screens babies for more than 50 disorders.
Since 1997, the health department has kept leftover blood in a depository and used some for research. Kelly of Mankato says the state acted illegally when it didn't get permission from parents.
"Normal people would say, if you want to do some research on that blood, you should ask me," Kelly said.
None of the settlement is going to the plaintiffs.
"Our clients aren't interested in money," Kelly said.
The state says that going forward, blood samples will be destroyed after a specified time unless parents agree they may be used.
Kelly said his firm got the case by mere happenstance. He'd called one of the clients on an unrelated matter, and during the conversation, the client asked his opinion on the blood case. Kelly took the case and more plaintiffs joined.
While it may not seem on the surface to be an issue of pressing concern, Kelly said his clients were more concerned about the potential for misuse of the blood.
As technology continues to advance, there's no telling what can be done with the genetic information blood samples can provide. What happens if the samples are sold to health insurance companies that then turn around and deny coverage to people based on what the samples tell them?
What if the samples end up in the hands of law enforcement agencies, which Kelly says has already been done?
"It's a privacy issue," Kelly said.
"Nothing nefarious was going," Kelly added. But he said that, if the state's Department of Health thought it was a good idea to have a blood sample depository, it should have gone to the Legislature and sought the proper policy change to make it legal.