Under tort law, a lawsuit has to prove a defendant has a potential liability, which in this case could be anyone involved in the medical procedure. However, any such suit could take years and ultimately may not be successful.
"I would not be surprised if doctors, hospitals, people that actually injected the drugs, the people that bought the drugs from the compounding company, many of those people will also be sued," said Fitzpatrick.
Plaintiffs' attorneys said they're considering that option but want more information on the relationships between the compounding pharmacy and the hundreds of hospitals and clinics that received its products.
Day, the attorney in Tennessee, said the clinics and doctors that purchase their drugs from compounding pharmacies or manufacturers could be held liable for negligence because they are in a better position to determine the safety of the medicine than the patients.
"Did they use due care in determining from whom to buy these drugs?" Day said.
Terry Dawes, a Michigan attorney who has filed at least 10 federal lawsuits in the case, said in traditional product liability cases, a pharmaceutical distributor could be liable.
"We are looking at any conceivable sources of recovery for our clients including pharmaceutical supply places that may have dealt with this company in the past," he said.
Ten years ago, seven fungal meningitis illnesses and deaths were linked to injectable steroid from a South Carolina compounding pharmacy. That resulted in fewer than a dozen lawsuits, a scale much smaller than the litigations mounting up against NECC.
Two companies that insured the South Carolina pharmacy and its operators tried unsuccessfully to deny payouts. An appellate court ruled against their argument that the pharmacy willfully violated state regulations by making multiple vials of the drug without specific prescriptions, but the opinion was unpublished and doesn't set a precedent for the current litigation.
The lawsuits represent a way for patients and their families to recover expenses, but also to hold the pharmacy and others accountable for the incalculable emotional and physical toll of the disease.
The shots are a common treatment for back and neck pain . A binder of snapshots shows what life is like in the O'Briens' rural Fentress County, Tenn., home: Dennis hooked up to an IV, Dennis in a stupor, bruises on his body from injections and blood tests. He's had three spinal taps. His 11-day stay in the hospital cost over $100,000, which was covered by health insurance.
His wife said she sometimes quietly checks at night to see whether her husband of 35 years is still breathing.
"In my mind, I thought we were going to fight this and get over it. But we are not ever going to get over it," said Kaye O'Brien.
Marjorie Norwood, a 59-year-old grandmother of three who lives in Ethridge, Tenn., has spent just shy of two months total in the hospital in Nashville battling fungal meningitis after receiving a steroid injection in her back. She was allowed to come home for almost a week around Thanksgiving, but was readmitted after her symptoms worsened.
Family members are still dealing with much uncertainty about her recovery, but they have not filed a lawsuit, said their attorney Mark Chalos. He said Norwood will likely be sent to a rehabilitation facility after her second stay in the hospital rather than return home again.
Marjorie Norwood's husband, an autoworker, has taken time off work to care for her and they depend on his income and insurance.
"It doesn't just change her life, it changes everyone else's life around her because we care about her and want her to be happy and well and have everything that she needs," said her daughter, Melanie Norwood.
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