Thalidomide survivors denied justice for more than fifty years have today launched a fresh legal bid against the manufacturers of the controversial pill given to pregnant women suffering morning sickness.
Slater and Gordon Lawyers issued proceedings against pharmaceutical company Grünenthal on behalf of people born with life changing disabilities in the UK.
The law firm also issued proceedings against Diageo Scotland, which in 1997 acquired Distillers Co. (Biochemicals), the business which bought and distributed Thalidomide from Grünenthal in the UK.
Both Grunenthal and Distillers promoted Thalidomide as completely safe and non-toxic but had never even attempted to check whether the drug was safe for the foetus when taken in pregnancy.
Head of Group Litigation at Slater and Gordon UK, Fraser Whitehead said, “It is a tragedy that people with significant physical abnormalities caused by Thalidomide have had to live with their difficulties for more than 50 years yet have never been compensated by the manufacturer and distributor.
“Grünenthal and Distillers have always claimed that the Thalidomide disaster was an unavoidable tragedy and that they did everything expected of drug companies at the time. Our research has demonstrated that is nonsense.
“Both companies knew their drug was causing severe nerve damage and both were explicitly warned of the possibility Thalidomide might cause severe malformations. Yet the drug was left on the market for many months afterwards.
“It is time those responsible are finally held to account for the mistakes of the past. Grünenthal, in particular, has done little make good the immense damage that it has done and it has to accept responsibility for those affected in the UK.
“Thalidomide survivors in this country have had their lives ruined by this drug yet they have not received any justice from Grünenthal despite the company being held to account in other parts of the world.”
Thalidomide was originally marketed as a sleeping pill, for nausea and as a sedative, and doctors frequently used it to treat morning sickness.
By the time the drug was pulled from the market in late 1961, more than 10,000 babies worldwide had been born with a range of disabilities caused by Thalidomide with only around half surviving.
There are approximately 460 recognised Thalidomide survivors still living in the UK today. But others were either denied compensation because their injuries did not fit medical preconceptions about ‘typical’ Thalidomide damage or because they had no proof their mothers took the drug.
Thalidomide babies often suffered missing or malformed limbs, shortening of arms and legs or damaged eyes, ears, genitals, heart, kidneys and digestive tract.
After a 10-year legal battle in 1973 the British distributors Distillers agreed to pay compensation in the UK but many people missed out on settlement deals due to the medical criteria at the time.
Thalidomide survivors in the UK have never been compensated by Grünenthal leaving victims – many unable to work and care for themselves – dependent on family members.
Mr Whitehead added: “Many of those affected by thalidomide have not been able to afford adequate care and have had to rely on family members, usually their parents.
“However all of those parents are now aging and concerned that when they die nobody will care for their now adult children. A legal victory should allow thalidomide survivors to pay for the care they require allowing them to live their lives to the full. It could also provide other thalidomiders with closure as well as compensation.”
Brian Davies, 53, from Gwynedd, Wales, was born with severe defects of both legs. His left leg ends in a stump, and his right leg has just two toes. Mr Davies, who works as an HGV driver, says his condition has left him in constant pain which is gradually worsening as his legs and skin weaken over time.
Despite the fact Mr Davies was born at the peak of the birth-defect epidemic and that he has a number of known thalidomide symptoms, he has never been compensated.
The married father-of-two said, “I’m very angry at the way I, and others like me, have been treated over the years. I have never really been given any support yet my disabilities have meant my life has been very difficult.
“I’m not the sort of person to let life get the better of me so I have made the most of it, I go to work and I am proud that I provide for my family. But it has been hard. I have to wear a prosthetic leg and suffer constant pain in my legs, hips and back. I worry that the pain will keep getting worse and stop me from doing my job."
Mr Davies was told in the 1970s that because his condition only affected his legs and not his arms that he would not be recognised as a Thalidomide survivor.
He said, “I know I am luckier than many as I still have my arms but that does not mean I should have been ignored. It’s a disgrace that so many people have been denied justice in this way. In my eyes it was simply the drug companies looking to save money and ignoring the duty of care they have to people whose lives they have ruined. Ever since I was a child I have missed out on everyday pleasures, like playing football with friends or swimming, things other people take for granted.
“Everyday I am in pain and every day is a struggle. I hope that now we finally get the justice that we have been demanding for so many years.”
The litigation marks the latest in a long running global legal battle between Thalidomide victims and Grünenthal and Diageo (Distillers). In 2012, Diageo settled a case with Australian survivor Lynette Rowe, who was born without arms and legs, but the sum was not disclosed.
In 2013 Diageo paid $89 million (Australian) to just over 100 further Australians damaged by the drug. Slater and Gordon Lawyers in Australia represented all of the Australian survivors.
Last year, a Spanish Court also ordered Grünenthal to pay compensation to 22 Spaniards born with disabilities as a result of the drug.
Slater and Gordon UK have 18 offices in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Sheffield, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Milton Keynes, Newcastle, Halifax, Wakefield & meeting rooms in Bramhall, Cheshire. Slater and Gordon AU have 70 locations across Australia.