State may sue blood scandal companies

THE Attorney General (AG) is to seek legal advice from a US firm on the feasibility of suing the American multinationals that provided contaminated blood products to Irish hospitals.

It is the second effort the AG has made to obtain an opinion from American lawyers on the merits of taking such a case. Initial efforts were hampered, it is understood, because the lawyers first approached had "a conflict of interest" in relation to the case.

According to the Irish Haemophilia Society (IHS), 326 haemophiliacs were infected with either hepatitis C or HIV as a result of receiving transfusions of the contaminated blood, and 84 have since died.

In July 2003, a New York firm approached the Department of Health and proposed to take a case on the State's behalf on a "no foal, no fee" basis meaning the lawyers would get paid only if they won.

The AG sought an opinion from an Irish barrister on the merits of such a case, but ruled it out on the basis that there were potential constitutional difficulties about the State becoming involved in a no foal, no fee case.

The AG then decided to obtain advice on possible alternative actions, and sought legal opinion from within the jurisdiction the pharmaceuticals were operating.

According to a spokesman for the Department of Health, on behalf of which the AG is operating, that first effort was hindered because the US lawyers approached had a conflict of interest.

"We think we now have a firm who will be able to produce independent advice on this," he said yesterday.

But last night, the IHS said it could not understand why the process was so slow-moving.

"We would have thought there were hundreds of thousands of lawyers in the States," a spokeswoman said. "We can't understand why it is taking so long to get a legal opinion."

The IHS previously warned that hundreds of millions of euro in potential compensation payments could be lost if legal action against the multinationals was delayed.

The organisation feared the time limits for bringing a case under US law meant some of those infected would have to be excluded from any case the State brought.

Two years ago, Justice Minister Michael McDowell angered the IHS by suggesting that the State should only bring a case if it had a good chance of success.

"If the option is open either to the victims or the Government, I've no doubt that the Minister for Health or the AG would take appropriate action," he said.

"(But) the Government should not simply rush into action to appear to be doing the popular thing when it could be a monumental waste of resources."

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