Thalidomide group taking legal action

 

AN ALLIANCE of 25 thalidomide survivors is taking legal action against the State for failing to protect them as children by allowing the drug on to the Irish market and not promptly notifying the public of its dangers.

The Irish Thalidomide Association said the decision to take action had been brought about by the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister for Health “weaselling” out of a commitment in the programme for government to hold discussions regarding further compensation for those affected by the drug.

Talks between the association and Minister for Health Dr James Reilly have not progressed since a meeting in July last year.

The association said Dr Reilly had offered to hold a medical review, but not on a statutory basis, and they were unwilling to participate in the exercise on those terms.

Members were also “horrified” by the use of the term “gesture of goodwill” by Dr Reilly in reference to compensation they might receive. “We felt that after 50 years it was very belittling,” association member Finola Cassidy said.

The Department of Health said Dr Reilly had been informed by the Attorney General that “the State does not have a legal liability” for the injuries suffered by Irish survivors.

Thalidomide was taken by pregnant women in the 1950s and 1960s to combat morning sickness but this resulted in many children being born with deformities, including missing limbs.

The public was not immediately warned about its dangers when it was withdrawn by its German manufacturer in December 1961, with the Department of Health not notifying doctors and hospitals until July 1962. The drug was also licensed in several other European countries, but not in the US.

The association yesterday said its 25 members were lodging applications with the Injuries Board and they expected authorisations to be promptly issued to allow their actions to go before the courts with all due haste.

Association member Dr Austin O’Carroll said the survivors had received legal advice suggesting there were significant issues with the fairness and adequacy of a 1975 compensation deal agreed by their families with the then government and the manufacturer of the drug, Chemie Grünenthal.

Under the agreement, the survivors received lump sums of between £6,600 and £21,300 and a monthly allowance for life of between £31.75 and £95.

Members of the association described the deal as “miserly” and said it was based on a presumption that children with thalidomide-related disability would not survive into adulthood, “never mind see the age of 50”.

“The State has neglected to fulfil its promised obligations to ensure that both recompense and healthcare requirements of our members are addressed,” Dr O’Carroll said.

The Department of Health said Dr Reilly had been “trying to make progress on reaching an agreement” that took account of survivors’ concerns and needs.

“A key objective of the Minister is to provide for the health and personal social care needs of the persons involved. The Minister wishes to make clear that his department stands ready to meet when the representatives of survivors of thalidomide would wish to do so.”

Dr Reilly’s predecessor Mary Harney offered a once-off ex-gratia payment in 2010 of some €62,500 to each of the 32 Irish survivors as “a practical expression of the government’s sympathy”. Survivors would also be paid an annual lump sum of up to €3,680 for the most severe category of disability, besides their current payments. The sum was equivalent to an annual payment for German survivors that started in 2009.

It is understood this offer has not been removed from the table. The association has described it as “derisory”.