Lawsuit names Ultragenyx Pharmaceutical as defendant, alleges unjust enrichment
BALTIMORE, Md. –– Nationally renowned civil rights and personal injury attorney Ben Crump of Ben Crump Law and co-counsel Christopher Seeger of Seeger Weiss today filed a lawsuit against Ultragenyx Pharmaceutical, Inc., a multibillion-dollar biopharmaceutical corporation, on behalf of the estate of Henrietta Lacks.
The suit alleges that Ultragenyx Pharmaceutical made a conscious choice to sell and mass produce the living tissue of Henrietta Lacks, despite the corporation’s knowledge that Lacks’ tissue had been taken from her without her consent by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The retrieval of her tissue is considered part of a conspiracy to harvest tissue for research from Black women without their knowledge or consent in racially segregated wards throughout the 1950s.
The procedure rendered Lacks infertile but did nothing to stop the spread of her cervical cancer, which claimed her life in 1951. Her cells, now commonly known as the HeLa cell line using the first letters of her first and last names, became the first human cells successfully cloned, and have since been used continually for research that has touched nearly every realm of medicine.
The suit alleges that Ultragenyx sells products developed with the HeLa cell line to buyers across the nation. As stated in the complaint, “Ultragenyx uses Mrs. Lacks’ genetic material to commercially manufacture AAV vectors, reaping huge profits that would never have been possible without Henrietta Lacks’ cells.” Adeno-associated virus (AAV) vectors are the leading platform for delivering genes used to treat a variety of human diseases.
According to the complaint, Ultragenyx seeks intellectual property rights to these products, staking a claim to Lacks’ genetic material for its own pecuniary gain – even though the company “has known that HeLa cells were stolen from Ms. Lacks.”
“Ultragenyx’s choice to continue utilizing HeLa cells despite the cell line’s origin and the concrete harm it inflicts on the Lacks family can only be understood as a choice to embrace a legacy of racial injustice embedded in the U.S. research and medical systems,” said Crump. “Like anyone else, Black people have the right to control their bodies. Just as Ultragenyx takes advantage of Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cell line, they also take advantage of vulnerable individuals with rare illnesses by price gouging them for essential treatments.”
The lawsuit charges Ultragenyx with a single cause of action – unjust enrichment – for its choice to profit from the unlawful conduct of Johns Hopkins’ doctors, making the company liable for its profits as a “conscious wrongdoer” under settled law.
“The enduring legacy of Henrietta Lacks should be one of acknowledgment, respect, and restitution, not continued exploitation by companies like Ultragenyx,” said Chris Seeger. “Their actions stand as a grim reminder of America’s history of medical racism and the urgent need to rectify these past wrongs. Our lawsuit aims to help the Lacks family reclaim their ancestor’s story and receive the justice and compensation they deserve.”
ABOUT BEN CRUMP LAW
Through his work, nationally renowned civil rights and personal injury attorney Ben Crump has spearheaded a legal movement to better protect the rights of marginalized citizens. He has led landscape-changing civil rights cases and represented clients in a wide range of areas including civil rights, personal injury, labor and employment, class actions, and more. Ben Crump Law is dedicated to holding the powerful accountable. For more information, visit www.bencrump.com.
ABOUT SEEGER WEISS
With offices in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, Seeger Weiss is one of the nation’s preeminent trial law firms, with an established track record of helping lead some of the most complex and important cases and securing landmark verdicts and settlements including the $14.7 billion settlement in the Volkswagen emissions case, the billion-plus NFL concussion settlement, the $4.85 billion Vioxx settlement, and the $1.5 billion settlement with Syngenta. For more information, visit seegerweiss.com.