Spanish health authorities only took thalidomide products off the market between October 1962 and January 1963, but there was no public awareness campaign about the drug's side effects. Thalidomide was still available for purchase in Spain under names like “Softenon” until at least 1965.
It is estimated that more than 3,000 people suffered thalidomide-related disabilities in Spain. While many of them died at a young age, today there are about 300 Spanish thalidomide survivors, who were born with severe defects after their mothers took the drug while pregnant.
The fight for compensation
Avite, the Spanish association for thalidomide victims, represents these survivors and filed a lawsuit against drugmaker, Grünenthal, seeking compensation totaling 204 million euros ($276 million) for its roughly 180 members.
The class-action lawsuit in Spain seeks answers to the question of who was responsible for the delay in banning the drug in Spain and who for the lack of notification about the drug's serious side effects: the authorities, the licensees, or the German manufacturer?
According to Avite's lawyers, copies of the correspondence between Grünenthal and one of the Spanish licensees, Medinsa, on December 21, 1961, shows that the German pharmaceutical company agreed "to not inform Spanish doctors of the reason for the sales ban."
Spain lagging behind
In most countries where the pills were sold compensation has been paid to survivors, either by pharmaceutical companies, governments, or a combination of both.
"Depending on the degree of debilitation, victims receive a monthly annuity from the government, which this year, fittingly, has been sharply increased [in Germany] to as much as 6,000 euros. Everything is based on a point system of how severe the handicap is," German lawyer, Stefan Pfalzgraf, explained in an interview with DW. But, he said, "it took decades [for the company] to come around that it possibly could have made a mistake."
Pfalzgraf has personally experienced the consequences of the product first-hand. He was born in December, 1960 with deformities after his mother had taken the drug while pregnant. As a consequence, his arms only reach to his elbows and he has only three fingers on his right hand and four fingers on his left.
And yet, he says he's better off than some of the other thalidomide victims, which are bound to wheelchairs, or didn't survive at all. Pfalzgraf didn't let his shortcomings take over his life and instead played sports, graduated from high school and studied law. Now, he's married with three children and is an active member in Germany of the Association for Contergan Victims.
Thalidomide victims in Spain have no such compensation and went to court to demand the same treatment as in Germany. The presence of victims in Spain was not even officially recognized until 2010 when the government finally granted 23 of them aid - ranging from 30,000 to 100,000 euros - depending on the degree of disability.
Grünenthal originally paid German victims nearly 600 million euros in damages, while Spanish victims have not received anything from the company so far, said Ignacio Martinez, a lawyer representing the Spaniards. About 30 Spanish victims attended the trial in Madrid on Monday (14.10.2013) wearing signs around their necks demanding justice.
Grünenthal earlier offered to pay Spanish sufferers a total sum of 120,000 euros annually, but that was rejected as being far too low,
Speaking as an attorney, Pfalzgraf said the issue of who legally shoulders the blame has never been clarified.
"After many months at trial [in Germany], with all the defendants and defense lawyers, a compromise was reached in which the lawsuit would be dropped, if Grünenthal paid a lump sum into a trust so that compensation, at least initially, could be assured," said Pfalzgraf. The German government and Grünenthal both paid into the trust, which is now operated exclusively by the government, he added.
At the Spanish trial, lawyers for Grünenthal argued that there was no absolute evidence of the victim's deformities having been caused by thalidomide.
Grünenthal said in a press release that it "sincerely deplores the tragedy of thalidomide," but that "the legitimacy of any proceedings could be seriously jeopardized" by the fact that more than 50 years had passed since the events in question. Spanish thalidomide victims had the option of seeking aid through two German foundations to "receive the same economic benefits" as the German victims, the company said.
German lawyer and victim, Stefan Pfalzgraf, noted that Grünenthal had denied all responsibility during the trial in Germany and that it was "very difficult to prove that they knew about the side effects and didn't make them public."
In the 1950s, thalidomide cut a wide swath of destruction across the world, leaving behind thousands of deformed infants, but that was only the beginning of ...See full report
SECRET files reveal the German maker of thalidomide ignored and covered-up repeated warnings that its drug could damage unborn babies.
July 18, 2012
A Australian woman has won millions of dollars in compensation for the damage she suffered because ofthalidomide. But Lynette Rowe's legal battle may not be over. If other victims aren't also compensated, she plans to take on the drug's manufacturer. Lynette Rowe, 50, was born without arms and legs.The settlement with Rowe could pave the way for more than 100 other Thalidomide victims in Australia and New Zealand to receive compensation through a class action, the law firm Slater & Gordon said.
The drug was made by German company Grunenthal and was licensed in Australia to the firm Distillers, which was later taken over by Diageo. Grunenthal did not contribute to the settlement, the law firm said.
"Those pills that Wendy and thousands of women took 50 years ago have caused so much heartache and suffering, but at least something positive is now being done to put some things right," Lynette's father Ian said in a statement released by Slater & Gordon.
Rowe's settlement follows a A$50 million ($51 million)payment Diageo agreed to make in 2010 to 45 Thalidomide victims in Australia and New Zealand, who sought help to cope with the mounting costs of care as they were living longer than expected.
"The approach announced today is both fair and equitable to all involved in this very sensitive and difficult situation," said Diageo director Ian Wright.
Diageo had "agreed a process that will explore resolution of as many of the remaining group claims as possible," he said.
The cases have been closely watched in the United States, where a complaint has been filed against GlaxoSmithKline , Sanofi-Aventis, Avantor Performance Materials and Grunenthal, with several plaintiffs claiming their birth defects resulted from their mothers' use of Thalidomide.
In some countries, including Britain and Germany, set up compensation systems for victims, but there was no such system in the United States, where the drug was never approved by the Food and Drug Administration but was used in clinical trials
Today, the Irish Thalidomide Association launched its campaign against the present Irish government. As we celebrate our chairperson Maggie Woods's 50th birthday, Maggie is lodging her injuries board application against the Irish State.
Maggie, seen right, holds the Taoiseach, Tanaiste and Government responsible for the present failures in the Irish States.
Ironically, on today’s date Maggie reminds us "that the original miserly settlement offer delivered by the Irish State in 1975 was quantified on the basis that the ITA members would not survive into adulthood, never mind see the age of 50 years".
In the intervening period, she points out that "our members against all the odds have contributed towards Irish society where we have led independent lives but unfortunately in more recent years we have seen our health decline, which has hit us hard, necessitating an urgent and fair response from this government "which has not been forthcoming", she said . She implores the government even at the eleventh hour to do the right thing.
As survivors of the Thalidomide drug began a legal battle against the State this week, the youngest survivor in the country, John Stack from Tarbert has spoken out about how the victims have been callously ignored.
The former IFA county chairman was among a number of members of the Irish Thalidomide Association who began the legal action over how those affected by the morning sickness drug which was administered to women in the 1950s and 1960s have been dealt with.
The drug, which was later withdrawn, led to children being born with deformities including a lack of limbs, shortened limbs and the absence of organs.
“It should not have happened to us. This drug was prescribed by doctors to our mothers and it had hugely detrimental affects. We were all born with different level of deformities, some worse than others,” he said.
John’s mother was prescribed the drug in 1962, even though it was supposed to be taken off the market by that stage. He was born in January 1963 with shortened limbs which has limited his ability to function fully.
“It has affected my whole life. I’m a farmer and I have to hire in help because of what happened me. It has made life difficult. Nowadays if something like this happened there would be uproar - but not back then.
“The Attorney General is saying the state is not liable; this is rubbish. The problem is that there so few of us that we can’t gain any political clout and we are being ignored,” he said.
32 survivors of Thalidomide, the majority of whom are represented by the ITA, this week took the first step in legal action against the State with the lodgement of individual applications with the Injuries Board.
Survivors received modest settlements in the 1970s of varying sums between €5,000 and €20,000 and monthly payments, but they claim this was, and still is, completely inadequate.
It was believed that many of the children would die quite young but as they have grown older, their medical and care needs have increased.
John Stack, who is now 49, is the youngest survivor in Ireland. A married father-of-three, he said that the application to the Injuries Board is the first step in their legal action.
“It is not just about medical care. We have extra needs that have to be addressed whether it is adaptations to our houses or vehicles or to provide facilities that would help in our daily struggle,” he said.
The group met with the former Minister for Health, Mary Harney several years ago and an offer of €62,000 was made, a sum which John says was “derisory”.
“We are all different, so an across-the-board sum does not fit. We have to get the help we need and the State is not listening.”
The survivors have also met with the current minister, Dr. James Reilly and were equally disappointed with the outcome. The minister has said the government would consider a financial goodwill payment but that they are not liable. This is refuted by John and his fellow survivors.
“He won’t sit down and talk with us. We are prepared to work with the government but they won’t negotiate. It is a ridiculous situation and needs to be addressed.
“I am angry and disappointed with the State. We are the victims here and we just want to be able to look after ourselves and it is up to the state to provide financial compensation no matter what they say,” he said.