International Law

Thalidomide plaintiffs agree to $80M settlement in Australian case; discovery continues in US


Decades after women were given Thalidomide to combat morning sickness during pregnancy in the 1950s and 1960s and wound up delivering babies with missing or deformed limbs and other birth defects, survivors are still seeking compensation.

Litigation continues in the United States, the United Kingdom and Spain, but more than 100 plaintiffs in an Australian class action this week agreed to a settlement totaling approximately $80 million in U.S. dollars, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

The settlement, which must still be approved by the Victorian Supreme Court, follows news last year that Chemie Grunenthal, the German pharmaceutical company that manufactured Thalidomide, had allegedly discounted and covered up warnings that the drug was causing birth defects. Diageo Scotland Ltd., a British company that owns the now-defunct Australian distributor of the drug, Distillers Co. Biochemicals Ltd., agreed to the approximately $80 million settlement; Grunenthal, however, will pay nothing.

The manufacturer also never tested the drug on gestating animals before enrolling pregnant women in clinical trials, according to affidavits in the Australian case, Agence France-Presse reports.

Some 10,000 children throughout the world are commonly believed to have been adversely affected by Thalidomide. Its impact in the U.S. was not as great as in other countries, because the Food & Drug Administration had not approved the drug by the time its teratogenic effects became apparent. A newly hired physician reviewer, Dr. Frances Kathleen Oldham Kelsey, was eventually hailed as a hero for resisting pressure to process what had been seen as a routine application for FDA approval of a sleeping pill in wide use in other countries, as a National Library of Medicine page details.

Nonetheless, as the tragedy of the birth defects caused by the drug unfolded, “the real dimension of the Thalidomide disaster has been vastly underestimated, under-reported and under-rated,” said attorney Peter Gordon of Gordon Legal. He represents plaintiffs in the Australian case, along with Michael Magazanik of Slater & Gordon.

In the U.S., litigation filed in federal court in Philadelphia contends, millions of Thalidomide tablets were distributed by drug manufacturers directly to physicians and resulting birth defects were blamed on other causes and concealed from victims, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in October.

The defendant drug firms are seeking to dismiss the litigation on statute-of-limitations grounds, but a federal judge OK’d discovery in September.

“There’s this myth that has been propagated that the United States dodged the bullet,” attorney Nick Styant-Browne of Hagens Berman told the newspaper. The Philadelphia litigation, he says, could “dramatically change the conventional wisdom.”

The Associated Press, the Australian and Sky News Australia also have stories about the $80 million settlement.

A Slater & Gordon press release and an earlier Associated Press article provide additional details.

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