California Couple Sues Fertility Clinic Over IVF Embryo ‘Mix-Up’

Daphna and Alexander Cardinale, the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against a Los Angeles-area fertility clinic, say they endured a painful custody exchange after DNA testing.

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Something didn’t seem quite right to Daphna Cardinale after she gave birth to her second child.

The baby girl, born on Sept. 24, 2019, to Ms. Cardinale and her husband, Alexander Cardinale, through in vitro fertilization, did not look like them, the couple said this week. She had darker skin and jet-black hair.

For three months, the Cardinales said, they raised the baby as their own, trying to rationalize the unexplainable. The couple’s older daughter, who was 5 at the time, relished becoming a big sister.

But then on Christmas Eve, the family said, the “nightmare” became a reality: DNA tests confirmed that the Cardinales were not their baby’s biological parents. When they confronted a Los Angeles-area fertility clinic about the results, the couple said, they eventually learned that an embryo from another couple had been implanted in Ms. Cardinale, and vice versa.

That New Year’s Eve, the Cardinales finally met their biological daughter, Zoe, and they said they had taken custody of her about two weeks later in what they described as a traumatic exchange. They decided to keep Zoe’s name.

Now, the couple is suing the clinic, the California Center for Reproductive Health, and its medical director in state Superior Court in Los Angeles County over the embryo “mix-up,” which they said continues to haunt two families well after pregnancy and infancy.

“We missed an entire year of our daughter’s life,” Ms. Cardinale, 43, said during a video news conference on Monday announcing the lawsuit. “We never saw our baby’s entrance into the world or cuddled her in her first seconds of life. Every time I felt a kick or spoke to her, it was someone else’s baby.”

“We had their baby, and they had our baby,” Ms. Cardinale said.

The law firm representing the Cardinales said it expected to file a similar lawsuit on behalf of the other couple, who were not identified in the Cardinales’ lawsuit. The babies were born about a week apart.

The California Center for Reproductive Health and its medical director, Dr. Eliran Mor, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

The website of the clinic, which has several locations in the Los Angeles area, describes Dr. Mor as a reproductive endocrinologist. I.V.F., an arduous path toward conception known for steep costs and at times painful treatments, involves stimulating a woman’s ovaries to produce eggs with hormone injections and fertility medications. The eggs are then retrieved and fertilized with sperm in a lab before being implanted as an embryo into the uterus.

Peiffer Wolf Carr Kane & Conway, the law firm representing the Cardinales, estimated that the couple had paid $50,000 to the fertility clinic for the treatments.

In the lawsuit, the couple said that Dr. Mor had never disclosed that a third-party affiliate, In VitroTech Labs, would be used for I.V.F. services and that Dr. Mor was an owner of that business.

In VitroTech Labs and its parent company, Beverly Sunset Surgical Associates L.L.C., are also named as defendants in the lawsuit, which accused the fertility clinic’s operators of medical malpractice, negligence and breach of contract.

In VitroTech Labs and Beverly Sunset Surgical Associates declined to comment on Tuesday.

Mr. Cardinale, 41, said during the news conference on Monday that the most upsetting aspect of the ordeal had been breaking the news to the couple’s older daughter, who begged her parents to keep the baby.

“How do you explain that to a 5-year-old?” Mr. Cardinale said.

Adam Wolf, a lawyer for the Cardinales, called during the news conference for tougher oversight of fertility clinics.

I.V.F. is a form of assisted reproductive technology, which is regulated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

“The Cardinales, you know, uncovered this relatively early because their baby was of a different race from them, but how many babies are there across the country who are of the same race but genetically unrelated to the people who used I.V.F.?” Mr. Wolf said. “We don’t know that answer. In part, we don’t know that answer because there are no databases that track this sort of thing. There are no reporting requirements of the clinics.”

In addition to the emotional anguish that they described, the couple said in the lawsuit that their careers had been adversely affected by the experience.

Mr. Cardinale, a recording artist, was dropped by Atlantic Records after he could not promote his “then-hot” music single, the lawsuit said.

“This ordeal has been a nightmare, and our entire family has suffered in countless ways, but what my wife has gone through is simply beyond words,” Mr. Cardinale said during the news conference. “We trusted people. How could this happen?”

Ms. Cardinale, a licensed therapist, lost most of the patients in her practice that she had spent years building, the lawsuit said. During the news conference, she cried as she recounted going through I.V.F. treatment.

“We came to it with incredible vulnerability and trust in our doctor and in the process,” she said. “We had no idea at the time that this greatest potential for joy would bring us such enduring pain and trauma.”

The couple have experienced panic attacks, and Ms. Cardinale was prescribed antidepressants after she had contemplated suicide, according to the lawsuit.

“It was torture that shook me to my core and forever changed who I am,” she said on Monday. “I was robbed of the ability to carry my own child.”

The couple said that they continue to see the girl that Ms. Cardinale gave birth to and briefly raised, during visits with the other couple, who live near them in the Los Angeles area.

“It’s like,” Mr. Cardinale said, “how do you just become family with total strangers?”

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