State faces claims of cruel delay in settlement of dying woman’s claim

THE State was last night accused of a cruel and calculated delay in settling a claim by a Hepatitis C victim at death’s door.

Sylvia O'Leary, a 32-year-old mother of two, was last night on a life support machine in Cork University Hospital.

Her family claim the State was gambling on her not surviving by delaying payment of a compensation settlement reached over three weeks ago.

The case is similar to the Brigid McCole scandal, the first Hepatitis C sufferer to take a case. She died the day after the State settled her claim.

Melissa Gowan, solicitor for Mrs O'Leary's family, yesterday wrote a letter to the Chief State Solicitor's Office, stating: "Our worst fears have now become a reality in that Mrs O'Leary suffered a serious deterioration in her health and is on life support. We have been told she may only have hours to live.

"The O'Learys believe that you are gambling on her not surviving so that you can attempt to resile again from the agreement reached between us.

"May we take it that you have deliberately decided to allow Mrs O'Leary to die without giving her the comfort of knowing her family will be provided for after her death."

Ms Gowan added: "There seems to be no plausible explanation for the cruel and calculated delay at this stage."

Last night, the solicitor said it was an absolute disgrace she had to reveal a sensitive family matter in the media to highlight the tragedy of the O'Leary family's case.

She claimed that a Department of Health official advised her yesterday that it would take a further week to finalise the matter.

However, a spokesperson for the Department of Health said last night the agreement involving Mrs O'Leary will be resolved today.

The department insisted that a settlement, reached seven days ago will stand.

"There's no question of the agreement unravelling," said the spokesperson.

"We were just notified today of her deteriorating condition." Hospital consultants yesterday advised relatives that Mrs O'Leary, from Ballincollig, Cork, has just hours to live. Her husband Des and children, Emma, 13, and Dillon, six, were at her bedside late last night.

She contracted the disease after her first liver transplant 12 years ago at a British hospital where a contaminated blood product was used.

She had originally been diagnosed with a kidney complaint before the Department of Health approved her liver transplant operation outside the State.

An Irish hospital was notified in 1996 about the contaminated blood transplant but Mrs O'Leary was not informed until 2001.

Due to the delay, Mrs O'Leary was precluded from making a claim in 1996 before a compensation tribunal for people infected by contaminated blood products.

In March this year, Mrs O'Leary underwent a second liver transplant.

Her health deteriorated and on Saturday night last, she was admitted to Cork University Hospital with liver failure. She was re-listed for a third transplant but was too ill to travel.

Due to the urgency of her case, legal teams met on November 7 where progress was achieved on an agreement.

Ms Gowan, of Ernest J Cantillon and Co, said the State's behaviour in the meantime, in purporting to withdraw an offer, caused a deterioration in Mrs O'Leary's health.

The amount of the proposed settlement was not disclosed but Ms Gowan said the family reluctantly accepted a lower figure on December 2 to avoid any further exacerbation to Mrs O'Leary's health.

The Chief State Solicitor's Office informed the family's legal advisor on December 2 that the proposed agreement was subject to procedural confirmation only and would be finalised within a matter of days.

By Brian Carroll

THE Brigid McCole case effectively destroyed the political career of former Fine Gael leader Michael Noonan and remains one of the biggest health scandals in the history of the State.

Mrs McCole died in October, 1996, from liver failure, after being infected with hepatitis C through contaminated anti-D blood product. She was survived by her husband, Brianie, and their 12 children.

Tests taken almost on a daily basis in 1976 showed that plasma being used to make anti-D serum was infected with hepatitis. Yet, in 1977, Mrs McCole received her infected anti-D product.

Her death, therefore, was not just a mistake. An agency of the State made a conscious decision to ignore the clear danger of infecting large numbers of women with an incurable disease. More than 1,600 women were infected.

The incompetence of the Blood Transfusion Service Board was compounded by the Government's treatment of the victims best illustrated in the case of Brigid McCole. After her death, her family called on Michael Noonan to resign his position as Minister for Health, claiming Mrs McCole was "threatened" for pursuing her compensation claim through the courts. Brigid's daughter, Brid McCole, said the family wanted Mr Noonan to explain why the State threatened her mother in a letter.

"It was only when our mother lay dying in a Dublin hospital just before her court action was to begin did the admission of liability and apology come from the Blood Transfusion Service Board.

"Even then she was threatened with costs if she pursued her case for aggravated damages - the same damages that this Government has said should now be paid to victims." The family claimed she was forced into accepting the comparatively low figure of £176,000. She died the day after the settlement was reached. She was 54 years old.

The BTSB's solicitors wrote to Mrs McCole's solicitors on September 20, 12 days before she died, threatening to "seek all additional costs" from that date if she proceeded with her action.

The letter warned: "If your client proceeds with her claim for aggravated and exemplary/punitive damages against our client and fails, then our client will rely on this letter in an application to the court against your client for all costs relating to the claim for such damages and for an order setting off any costs to which your client might otherwise be entitled."

The Finlay tribunal found that this letter was shown to Michael Noonan before it was sent and was not altered.

When elected leader of Fine Gael, Mr Noonan said the McCole case had marked a personal and political watershed in his life. It was an episode he deeply regretted. RTÉ broadcast a dramatisation of the events surrounding Brigid McCole's death shortly before the general election in May this year. FG lost 23 seats. Mr Noonan resigned as leader.

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