The Implant Files
The Dangerous Business of Health

The Reluctant Hero

Jürgen Thoma spent eight years fighting the manufacturer of his artificial hip in court. The ruling could trigger a wave of lawsuits.

Text: Katrin Langhans, Photos: Stefanie Preuin

Jürgen Thoma has waited eight years for this moment. The mustachioed 61-year-old in jeans, a gray jacket and a white shirt, walks briskly as he takes his final steps toward the court building in the historic center of Freiburg, a German university town. He doesn't want to be late. He opens the heavy wooden door.

It's a sunny day in October 2018, and the ruling is soon set to be announced in Room 2 of the district court – a judgment that not only has the potential to help Thoma bring closure to his suffering, but also that of around 100 other patients. Many of them experience the same sharp pain he used to feel in his legs, some can hardly walk more than a few hundred meters before the pain becomes unbearable. All of them trace their problems back to the Durom-Metasul-LDH hip prosthesis, made by manufacturer Zimmer Biomet. They are hoping the court will provide an answer to the question as to who bears the responsibility for the harmful chromium and cobalt fragments that apparently abraded off their artificial hips and began grinding away at their bones.
A man wearing round glasses leans on his crutches in the corridor of the Freiburg court and gray-haired women sit on the wooden bench. Thoma nods toward them and shakes their hands. They've known each other for quite a while.

Thoma greets an acquaintance with similar artificial hip problems. They first met in the hospital.

"I'm still having a hard time with my hip," one elderly gentleman says to Thoma. "And, you?" "I'm OK," Thoma replies.

They're all waiting for the ruling in the civil suit Jürgen Thoma vs. Zimmer Biomet. The case seeks to find answers to some critical questions: Is it possible the manufacturer knew of potential metal abrasion before Thoma's operation? And did the company's artificial hip go through sufficient testing?

Thoma is too level-headed to wear the activist's cap, but also too ambitious to allow himself to fall into the role of victim.