Drug's victims seek more compensation

Thalidomide victim Lorraine Mercer

TEXT OF STORY:

TESS VIGELAND: Fifty years ago, a German pharmaceutical company introduced a drug called Thalidomide. It was supposed to help pregnant women cope with morning sickness. Instead, it left thousands of babies dead or severely deformed. Victims and their families received millions of dollars in compensation, but now many of those Thalidomide babies are middle-aged.
Their health is deteriorating and the money is running out. Today, two British victims are in Germany to launch the latest stage in a multi-billion dollar campaign for more generous payback.

From London, Stephen Beard reports.


STEPHEN BEARD: Thalidomide left Karl Davies disabled from birth. His arms are little more than hands protruding from his shoulders, but that doesn't stop Karl from trying to lead a normal life.

KARL DAVIES: I'm using my foot to put the key in and turn. OK, that's on. Now it's shoe back on.

In spite of his disability, Karl drives himself to work.

DAVIES: Now I'll use my foot to hook underneath the door, and I'll just slam the door and pull my foot out and leg out of the way rather quickly so I don't get caught.

An adroit performance, but Karl admits that at the age of 45, it isn't getting easier.

DAVIES: It's getting increasingly difficult over the years. Flexibility's gone. My hands aren't as flexible or as strong as they used to be, and things are more painful year, by year, by year.

And more expensive. When they were born, the thalidomide victims were not expected to live more than a few years. Now many of them, more severely disabled than Karl, have outlived their compensation. They've launched a campaign to get more money. They've targeted the German manufacturer of the drug Grunenthal, and the German government.

NICK DOBRIK: They have not lived up to their moral obligation, and eventually we will sit down and negotiate a settlement which will make the thalidomiders financially secure.

Nick Dobrik, himself a moderately disabled thalidomider, is heading the campaign. He's asking for $6 billion, an average of $1.75 million for each of the 3,500 surviving victims. Grunenthal has rejected that claim, and agreed only to pay an extra 75 million. The German government has proved unresponsive.
When Nick and his fellow campaigners turned up on the doorstep of the German embassy in London last month, the ambassador's deputy was not exactly welcoming.

AMBASSADOR'S DEPUTY: He physically can't see you today.

DOBRIK: You don't seem to care about them.

DEPUTY: No, that's not correct.

DOBRIK: Well, why won't you receive them?

DEPUTY: That's not correct at all.

Grunenthal paid the equivalent of $200 million to the German victims of the drug in the early 70s, but that money's run out. The German government now pays the German victims an average of $8,000 a year. Jacqueline Perry is a British lawyer who's working pro bono for the thalidomiders. She says the business of compensation has changed dramatically since the early 70s.

JACQUELINE PERRY: We calculate it in a much more exacting way than was ever done in the days when a sort of general figure was thought of. You looked at the ceiling. You gazed out of the window. You divided by three, and it was a very much less scientific basis.

Thalidomide victims in Spain and Italy got no compensation at all. The US largely avoided the disaster. The FDA refused to approve the drug, but there are thought to be about a dozen American victims whose mothers took the medicine while in Europe. We don't know whether any of them were compensated. Lorraine Mercer is another British victim. She has no arms or legs. She lives alone in a small apartment surrounded by electronic devices.

ROBERT: This is the electric door mechanism into Lorraine's apartment. It's an automatic system which is radio-controlled.

Robert is a part-time carer. In spite of Lorraine's severe disability, in spite of the fact that British victims are better off than most, she doesn't get full-time care. She can't afford it.

LORRAINE MERCER: It's not easy, very hard to survive on your own.

Once she sang in the church choir, but breathing trouble has crushed her vocal chords. Her health is declining fast, but she's completely committed to the campaign.

MERCER: I will go and fight if they don't give us more money. I will go and fight until we get somewhere.

The victims intend their new campaign to be a landmark in the history of product liability and compensation.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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