An Australian woman born without arms and legs after her mother took thalidomide during pregnancy, on Wednesday won a landmark multi-million dollar settlement in her class action against drug firms.
Lynette Rowe, 50, is leading a mass lawsuit on behalf of people born with congenital defects in Australia and New Zealand between 1958 and 1970 whose mothers took the sedative thalidomide, made by German chemical firm Grunenthal.
Rowe claims her condition was caused by her mother’s consumption of thalidomide and is suing Grunenthal, defunct British-based distributor The Distillers Company and Diageo.
Distillers is now part of Diageo, which was created through the merger of Grand Metropolitan and Guinness in 1997.
Lawyers told the Supreme Court in Victoria state that Rowe had reached a confidential settlement in her case with Diageo Wednesday, describing it as a “multi-million dollar amount”.
“(It) will be sufficient to provide a very good level of care for Lyn for the rest of her life,” said Rowe’s counsel, Peter Gordon.
Gordon said it was a “fair and consistent” result which showed compassion and understanding for Rowe, who has been cared for by her parents around the clock since she was born.
Diageo also agreed to negotiate with other claimants in the case, in which Gordon’s firm said it had been contacted by “over 100 people”, including two claims that were now “well advanced”.
The case against Grunenthal will continue, but Rowe’s lawyers plan to ask for the hearing, slated for October, to be pushed back to August 2013 to allow for settlement negotiations and for any final claimants to come forward.
Rowe’s team claims that Grunenthal saw Australia as a priority market for thalidomide and “flooded” it with the morning sickness drug, with eight million tablets on the shelves when investigators finally linked it to birth injuries.
Gordon’s co-counsel Michael Magazanik said Grunenthal had made numerous attempts to derail the case and now “refused to contribute to the settlement”.
“The facts about Grunenthal and thalidomide need to come out,” Magazanik said.
“Grunenthal never tested the drug on pregnant animals or followed up its effect in pregnant women, yet assured doctors the drug was exceptionally safe.”
The pharmaceutical giant issued a statement saying it regretted “the consequences of the thalidomide tragedy”, but believed it acted responsibly in development of the drug and would “fully defend” any legal action.
“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,” it said.
Rowe wept as the settlement was announced, saying it proved that “you don’t need arms and legs to change the world”, while her now elderly parents Ian and Wendy expressed pride in their daughter’s fighting spirit.
“Those pills that Wendy and thousands of other women took 50 years ago have caused so much heartache and suffering, but at least something positive is now being done to put some things right,” said Rowe’s father.
Thalidomide was launched in the late 1950s and was sold in nearly 50 countries before it was withdrawn after babies began showing severe side effects from the drug.
An estimated 10,000 children worldwide were born with deformities, including the absence of arms and legs, as a result of their mothers taking the drug.
Gordon described it as “the greatest pharmaceutical disaster in history”.