Law School Acquires Famed Tort Case Papers

Harvard Law School's Langdell Library is set to acquire the copious legal papers of the plaintiffs in a landmark mass tort case.

The collection amassed by the plaintiffs in the Dalkon Shield case, a series of lawsuits against the makers of a flawed contraceptive that lasted for almost a quarter-century, is one of the largest such collections in the country.

The Ohio law firm Brown and Szaller donated the papers.

The gift will "allow students to become familiar with the kinds of materials they'd see in a mass tort case," said David R. Warrington, librarian for special collections at the law school.

Brown and Szaller Managing Attorney James F. Szaller, who had been involved in the suits' litigation since 1975, decided to donate the massive archive to Harvard because the files would otherwise have been destroyed.

Szaller said he believes the collection is an ideal case study in mass tort and product liability law. Since the law is always evolving, he said, the completeness and breadth of the material will offer law students an opportunity to see the development of one of the earliest mass tort cases during its lengthy time in court.

Mass tort cases are a relatively new and increasingly important field. Dalkon Shield was one of the first such cases and helped establish U.S. legal precedent on the subject.

At various times, nearly 100 firms from around the world used the data compiled by Brown and Szaller to pursue civil actions against the makers of the Dalkon Shield, an intrauterine contraceptive introduced in the American market in 1971 by the A. H. Robins Company.

Billed as safer than birth control pills, some 3.6 million units were sold in the U.S. The shield was pulled from the market in 1974 after design defects and poor medical directions were accused of causing injuries and sterility.

Despite Robins' contention that the shield was safe if used properly, a growing docket of claims followed the contraceptive into retirement. Robins fought lawsuits until 1985, when it sought bankruptcy protection from litigants.

Under bankruptcy laws, Robins won substantial victories to narrow the pool of eligible claimants and limit its damages. But it was unable to escape the wave of suits, and by the time the pool fund for plaintiffs' settlements closed this April it had paid out nearly $3 billion in reparations to women injured by the shield.

The material donated by Szaller includes trial transcripts, medical information on the shield's effects, documents relating to Robins' bankruptcy proceedings, depositions and testimony from expert witnesses and from every major Robins officer.

The Dalkon collection joins a large group of historical sources at Langdell, including the papers of Supreme Court justices Oliver Wendell Holmes, Class of 1861, Felix Frankfurter, the letters of Sacco and Vanzetti and documents from the Nuremberg war trials.

The Dalkon papers will be among the law school's largest collections, occupying about 185 linear feet of drawer space.

The library's materials are open to Harvard students and are also of particular interest to social scientists and historical researchers as well as legal scholars, said David A. Ferris, curator of rare books and manuscripts at Langdell.

Librarians are reviewing the documents and have not determined when they will be available to the public, law school officials said.

Szaller's firm updated the indices before sending the files, but an index of the contents by box and folder must be prepared before the collection can be added to HOLLIS and opened to the public.