September 3, 2007, The Guardian
Bayer, Baxter, Sanofi: HIV couple sues US drug firms in blood scandal
· American judge says case is best heard in Britain
· Action may increase 1991 payouts to haemophiliacs
Lawyers for a couple infected with HIV through contaminated blood products are hoping to reopen the issue of government responsibility for the scandal in the British courts.
Writs against the American pharmaceutical companies that supplied the blood products have been issued in the names of Haydn Lewis from Cardiff, a haemophiliac given contaminated blood who was diagnosed with HIV in 1985 and with hepatitis C in the early 1990s, and his wife Gaynor Lewis, whom he unwittingly infected with HIV.
The couple, with six other claimants, have been trying to pursue their case against the American companies for five years in the US courts. Recently, however, a US judge ruled that the cases should be heard in Britain. One of the reasons cited was that it would be easier for bodies such as the Department of Health to be joined in the action as defendants along with the drug companies.
Laurence Vick, head of clinical negligence at Michelmores in Exeter, who is representing Mr and Mrs Lewis, said he hoped to involve the government in the legal action, even though it signed a financial settlement in 1991 with the haemophiliacs who contracted HIV.
"We think it can be done. It is an issue we are keen to investigate. There is a strong feeling that the compensation was under-settled." He said evidence in recent months to the independent Archer inquiry into the blood scandal suggested that the settlement had not been fair. "It looks as though the waivers were procured on the basis of incomplete information. The medical science the settlements were based on was clearly out of date. A lot of the victims thought they had only a handful of years to live and many had not been given a hepatitis diagnosis at the time."
Testimony to the inquiry by the former health secretary Lord Owen also suggested there was "a stack of information within the Department of Health which was not known at the time of the settlement," he said. Those who accepted the compensation in the early 1990s received between £21,000 and £80,000 - but at the time were not expected to survive.
The writ has been issued against Bayer, Baxter Healthcare, Armour Pharmaceutical, CSL Behring, Sanofi-Aventis US and Alpha Therapeutic "all of which exported blood products known as Factor 8 and Factor 9 to Britain. Some batches were contaminated by the viruses."
Mr Lewis has been fighting for years to try to establish which of the contaminated batches were responsible for his infection, and therefore which company or companies to pursue, but the Department of Health withheld documents on the grounds of commercial confidentiality, he said. Some of the victims of the blood scandal who had evidence of the batch numbers and could clearly identify which products caused their infections have already received compensation from pharmaceutical companies, he added. Eight cases have so far been referred back to the British courts by American judges, but there are 250 more still in the US system which are likely to follow suit.
Mr Vick said he believed the haemophiliacs may have been the victims of a cover-up by government officials. "I am adamant that Haydn and all the other victims of the haemophilia scandal will get appropriate compensation for the suffering they have endured," he said.
"For too long the truth has been obscured by closed agreements and compromised solutions. The American manufacturers must take responsibility for the consequences of commercial decisions to supply contaminated blood products."
Sarah Boseley, health editor