Since the beginning of the year, the number of Bair Hugger lawsuits has passed the 1000 mark. As of January 15th, there were a total of 1,105 cases pending before the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where all federal lawsuits have been consolidated in multi-district litigation. These cases are currently in the pre-trial phase. Legal experts believe the number of cases will continue to rise, as the Bair Hugger has been used by hospitals since the early 1990s.

The Bair Hugger is a surgical blanket used to maintain a patient’s body temperature during surgery. Originally manufactured by Arizant Healthcare, Inc. (now a division of the 3M corporation), the Bair Hugger is a “forced-air warming” device that prevents an anesthetized patient’s body temperature from dropping.

It uses a portable blower in order to surround the patient with warm air while draped with a disposable blanket. A few years ago, Dr. Scott Augustine, who invented the Bair Hugger in 1988, realized there was a design flaw and issued a warning about the elevated risk of patient infection that could result from use of his device. However, by that time, his company had been taken over by 3M and he had lost control over the design and marketing of his invention.

3M was not interested in any such warning, even though five additional studies confirmed Dr. Augustine’s fears. After all, the product is currently used in nine out of ten hospitals in the U.S., and has generated over $31 billion in sales for the company. Meanwhile, the Bair Hugger has been implicated in deep-joint infections that have led to needless limb amputations.

Plaintiffs in Bair Hugger lawsuits allege that 3M has known about this design flaw and has deliberately failed to either make corrections to the device or issue warnings to the medical profession. 3M denies all allegations, and claims that Dr. Augustine is a disgruntled, ex-employee who is trying to profit off a substitute medical device he has invented.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.