Landmark thalidomide payout offers hope for thousands

MOMENTS after Lynette Rowe's father began publicly praising her determination as the lead plaintiff in a landmark Australian thalidomide class action, the Melbourne woman - who yesterday reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with the drug's distributor - was overcome with emotion.

But Ms Rowe's physical disabilities - she was born without arms and legs - prevented her from wiping away any tears she shed.

Instead, it was her mother, Wendy, who dabbed her eyes with a tissue, as her father, Ian, proudly declared that his daughter had proved ''you don't need arms and legs to change the world''.

Ms Rowe's congenital defects are the result of her mother taking the controversial drug thalidomide for anxiety and morning sickness during her 1961 pregnancy.

Ms Rowe, now 50, took legal action against the drug's manufacturer, German pharmaceutical company Grunenthal, and thalidomide's Australian distributor, Distillers, which was bought by British company Diageo in 1997.

Victoria's Supreme Court yesterday heard that a multimillion-dollar compensation settlement had been reached between Ms Rowe and Diageo, paving the way for thalidomide victims across the world to seek similar payouts.

While her settlement remains confidential, Ms Rowe's lawyer Peter Gordon said it would ensure she would be cared for for the rest of her life.

He described thalidomide as ''the greatest pharmaceutical disaster in history''.

But the fight against Grunenthal continues. The company maintains it acted responsibly in the development of the drug despite admitting it greatly regretted ''the consequences of the thalidomide tragedy''.

''Grunenthal maintains that its actions were consistent with the state of scientific knowledge and the prevailing standards for pre-marketing and testing of the pharmaceutical industry in the 1950s,'' a statement released yesterday read.

''Grunenthal will continue to fully defend any litigation brought against it.''

Ms Rowe remains the representative plaintiff in the class action against Grunenthal, which it is alleged received reports of birth deformities in infants whose mothers had taken thalidomide between 1956 and 1961, but ignored, suppressed and denigrated those who complained.

Negotiations between Diageo and more than 130 other thalidomide victims in Australia and New Zealand will continue.

Diageo director Ian Wright told The Age the company was keen to reach settlements.

''I'm very gratified that the Rowe family feel they are now able to get on with the rest of their lives and I hope everybody else who goes through this process will be when we get it resolved,'' he said.

''We all feel that we're glad that we got to a fair and equitable settlement in what's a very sensitive situation, so hopefully we can do that for everybody.''

Ken Youdale, of Sydney, who negotiated a separate 2010 settlement on behalf of his thalidomide-victim daughter and others, described Ms Rowe's settlement as ''fabulous''.

''It has for the first time thrust into perspective the fact that there are so many people who have yet to be compensated, who have spent 50-odd years of their life with nothing,'' he said.

Mark Chorlton, a Newcastle thalidomide victim who is part of the class action against Grunenthal, said compensation he received several years ago had allowed him to ''survive''.

''These people have had severe deformities from birth and one of the problems with that is the older we get, the quicker we're wearing out. The normal processes of ageing are actually made worse by our deformities,'' he said. ''The medical costs and medical needs …are just going to escalate over the next years as we age.''

Justice David Beach adjourned the case until August next year so final discussions on the settlements could continue.  

With Nathan Partenza

Thalidomide: A history

1954 Pharmaceutical company Chemie Grunenthal develops a new sedative.

1957 Thalidomide launched under trade name Contergan in Germany.

1961 Australian doctor William McBride discovers links between thalidomide and birth defects.

1962 Australian government bans thalidomide.

1974 Distillers (which had marketed thalidomide) offers 17 Australian children $1.7 million but refuses to admit liability.

1980 All 37 Australian cases finally settled.

1998 Approved in the US as a treatment for a complication of leprosy.

2006 Thalidomide is subsidised by the Australian government as a cancer treatment.

January 2012 Nunawading woman Lynette Rowe sues Grunenthal for birth defects.

July 2012 Diageo settles with Rowe, now 50, and agrees to negotiate other claims in good faith.

The story Landmark thalidomide payout offers hope for thousands first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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