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50 Couples to Get $10 Million to End UCI Fertility Clinic Suits

Scandal: Settlement from University of California would close more than half of remaining claims over allegedly stolen human eggs if approved by judge.

July 19, 1997|NICK ANDERSON and ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The University of California has agreed to a $10-million settlement with 50 couples who had been enrolled in UCI's now-closed fertility clinic and sued after learning that doctors had allegedly stolen eggs from unsuspecting female patients, plaintiffs' attorneys announced Friday.

The accord, which the attorneys said must be approved by an Orange County judge, would end in one stroke about half of the more than 100 civil lawsuits filed after the fertility scandal broke in the fall of 1994.

The new settlement would raise to roughly $14 million the total that university officials have agreed should be paid to 72 couples in connection with the scandal, said plaintiffs' attorneys Lawrence S. Eisenberg of Irvine and Melanie R. Blum of Orange.

University of California officials would not confirm the amount of the settlement announced Friday.

The scandal centers on three UCI doctors who allegedly stole eggs harvested from women undergoing fertility treatments in four Southern California medical facilities from the late 1980s through the early 1990s, implanting some of the eggs in other women and funneling others into research.

In some instances, children were conceived and born without the knowledge of the women whose eggs were taken.

Ricardo H. Asch and Jose P. Balmaceda, the two principal doctors accused in the case, have left the country and would face criminal charges if they return.

Asch is in Mexico and Balmaceda in Chile. Their colleague, Dr. Sergio C. Stone, is under house arrest in Villa Park. All have been indicted on federal charges of mail fraud and income tax evasion in connection with the scandal. They have denied wrongdoing.

Balmaceda's attorney said he is pleased with the settlement package.

"It removes Dr. Balmaceda from potential liability," said attorney Dan Callahan of Irvine, who speaks with his client periodically by telephone from Santiago, Chile, "but I'd still like to see him have his day in court."

Details of the settlement, including the identity of the couples and how much money they will receive, were not disclosed Friday as UC officials and plaintiff attorneys stood behind a court order that allowed them to withhold the information from the public.

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Senior officials for the UC system confirmed that settlements had been reached but declined to release details, citing a stay issued late Thursday by the state Supreme Court. The court said that the issue involved--the public's interest in how taxpayer money is spent versus the privacy rights of the couples--eventually will be decided by the high court's justices.

Late Friday, UC General Counsel Jim Holst, who managed the settlement proceedings for the university, said the state court order prevents him from disclosing the amount of the settlement deal.

But Holst confirmed that the university has been involved in settlement negotiations for "a number" of the 102 lawsuits he said were filed in the wake of the scandal.

Holst, UC's top lawyer, said the university would continue seeking "fair and appropriate resolution" of remaining suits. He added that settlements would be disbursed from self-insurance funds the university keeps.

Byron Beam, a private attorney in Santa Ana representing UCI, said university officials consider the settlement a "good deal" for the UC system, and are eager to settle the remaining cases by the end of the year.

Eisenberg and Blum said the complex settlement package had been approved by the UC Board of Regents in its June and July meetings.

The two plaintiffs' attorneys, who together negotiated the deal with UC lawyers, claimed a victory for their clients in a news conference at a hotel across the street from the UCI Medical Center in Orange. They said the facts of each case had been considered individually, though they were presented as a package.

"These women are being justly compensated, although their pain will never go away," Eisenberg said.

"The damage is unbelievable," said Blum, noting that at least 15 births had resulted from the misappropriation of eggs alleged in the 50 malpractice suits. "These children were robbed of their heritage. The parents were robbed of their children."

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Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, an ex officio member of the Board of Regents, called the settlement deal "yet another example of California taxpayers footing the bill to clean up a UC management fiasco."

"I do not begrudge restitution to the innocent victims of this scandal," Davis continued. "But this money could have paid for a lot of outreach and a lot of scholarships for deserving UC students. We simply must bring UC's managerial and fiscal controls up to the high level of its academic standards."

It was unclear how much UC will ultimately pay from the $10-million settlement described Friday.

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