Harney rules out suing US blood firms for now

THE Government will not contemplate suing the US pharmaceutical firms whose blood products infected haemophiliacs until it finds a case it believes it can win.

Tánaiste and Health Minister Mary Harney, who met members of the Irish Haemophilia Society (IHS) yesterday, said the Government would be foolish to pursue legal action against a drug firm if it did not have reasonable grounds for believing it could succeed.

“We would be exposing the taxpayer to huge litigation costs if we were to fail,” she said.

A total of 87 haemophiliacs have died as a result of contaminated clotting agents and most were made by drug firms based in the US.

But the IHS said that, based on the legal advice they had received, the State could recoup hundreds of millions from the firms whose products infected haemophiliacs with HIV and hepatitis C.

Four years ago former Health Minister Micheál Martin said the possibility of pursuing the drug firms through the courts would be investigated after the Lindsay Tribunal refused to expand its terms of reference to examine the issue.

In July 2003, US lawyers Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann and Berstein offered to take a case against the companies who supplied contaminated products to Irish health authorities. But Ms Harney said preliminary legal opinion received by Attorney General (AG) Rory Brady raised serious concerns in relation to the proposal.

On the AG’s recommendation, a legal firm in the US was engaged to provide an independent opinion and Ms Harney said she had asked to the advice to be available by the end of May.

IHS executive member Brian O’Mahony said they now intended to hold the minister to the new deadline but would also be expecting her to make an absolute decision on the matter then.

Ms Harney said that while the Compensation Tribunal continued to act in an non-adversarial manner, those who appealed their award to the High Court could expect to be cross-examined.

“Clearly, if someone is looking for substantially more damages and they are the only witness we will have to cross-examine them, otherwise we would not be able to establish the case before the court,” she said.

But Mr O’Mahony pointed out that the cross-examining of haemophiliacs who appealed their award to the High Court only started in the last year.

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