U Apologizes to Family for Sperm Mix-Up

Apr 25, 2014

Thomas Lippert, pictured in 1998, allegedly swapped his sperm sample with a customer's sample at the fertility clinic where he worked.
Thomas Lippert, pictured in 1998, allegedly swapped his sperm sample with a customer's sample at the fertility clinic where he worked.
Credit Salt Lake County

The University of Utah announced Thursday the findings of an investigation into allegations of sperm donation tampering by a former lab employee. Texas couple John and Pamela Branum prompted the investigation after learning that their daughter is the offspring of Thomas Lippert, an employee at the University of Utah lab where the family received a sperm donation in 1991.  

After a 90-day internal review by a committee of U physicians and an outside legal ethicist, the university has decided to break a commitment to maintaining anonymity for donors, and reveal that Lippert was a lab-approved donor. The head of the investigation Dr. Jeffrey Botkin says it's still not clear how the sperm was swapped, but that the Branum family deserves an apology.

“Whether it was accidental, or whether it was intentional on the part of Tom Lippert or others at the time, we can’t determine.  But in either case, it’s inappropriate and unacceptable,” Botkin says. “The university is taking responsibility for those events and offering an apology for the heartbreaking circumstances that the family finds themselves in now.”

Botkin expressed frustration at the lack of information available, given how many documents were destroyed when the lab was closed, and that the key principals involved are now deceased. Lippert served two years in federal prison in the 1970s for kidnapping a female college student, but the report reveals that he did not undergo a background check. Botkin says the fertility industry did not have the same standards that exist today, so the university was not out of line with protocol at the time.

“It took the profession a long time or a number of years at least to develop adequate oversight and controls to prevent exactly these sorts of problems,” Botkin says. 

In a statement, the Branum family called the investigation biased and incomplete. The family wants other clients who may have been affected to be notified, but the committee concluded that the university should not attempt to contact patients because it may cause harm to families.

The U will continue to offer paternity testing for those who request it. Since January, five have been tested by an independent laboratory on behalf of the University. To date, there is no evidence of additional unintended children of Lippert. However, the testing did uncover a possible error that resulted in a child from a donor who was not the donor selected by the family.