Australian woman Lynette Rowe who was born without arms and legs because of thalidomide has settled her case for a multi-million dollar sum - and other Australians and New Zealanders may soon follow suit.
Compensation from the UK company Diageo plc will provide Ms Rowe with care for the rest of her life, relieving her ageing parents who have dedicated themselves to her needs for the past 50 years.
Thalidomide drugs were distributed in Australia and New Zealand around 1960 and 1961 by Distillers, which became part of Diageo in 1997.
Ms Rowe’s lawyer Peter Gordon, from Gordon Legal, says negotiations will now begin on the remaining cases.
“This is a great outcome for a wonderful family. The amount of the settlement will remain private but I can say it is a multi-million dollar amount and will be sufficient to provide a very good level of care for Lyn for the rest of her life.
“For most of the last month, while this settlement was being discussed, Lyn’s concern has been not so much for herself but instead for the plight of other unrecognised thalidomiders in Australia and New Zealand.
“She has insisted that they get an opportunity to put their cases through a fair and equitable process. Diageo has done the right thing and made that promise to Lyn.
“The result in my opinion is fair and consistent with the compassionate and understanding approach I saw Diageo take to these cases in 2010 when they agreed to a further ex gratia package of assistance to the thalidomide survivors who had settled their common law claims back in the 1970s.”
Lyn Rowe said she was proud of the result. “It is great that my case will bring about good things for other people too. It shows you don’t need arms and legs to change the world. Like I always say: see the person, not the disability.”
Ms Rowe thanked Diageo for their positive attitude to her case and the claims of other thalidomiders. “Diageo says they will consider other claims in good faith and I believe them,” she said.
Lyn’s father Ian Rowe said he and his wife Wendy are very proud of their daughter.
“Lyn was always prepared to go to trial to get the right result and Wendy and I are incredibly proud of her determination and persistence.
“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.
“We are also grateful to our legal team for their work for Lyn, and to the hundreds of Australians who sent messages of support.”
Slater and Gordon’s Michael Magazanik, who with Peter Gordon conducted Ms Rowe’s claim, said the legal action had also been against Grunenthal, a German pharmaceutical company, which invented thalidomide and then licensed other companies (including Distillers) to sell it around the world.
“Grunenthal started by trying unsuccessfully to get Lyn's claim kicked out of Australia and into the German courts. In other words Grunenthal tried to force a limbless woman and her elderly parents to travel to the other side of the world to try and bring their case in a country where they don’t speak the language. Then Grunenthal tried – and failed – to delay the trial date and strike out Lyn’s claim. Now they have refused to contribute to the settlement.
“The facts about Grunenthal and thalidomide need to come out. For example, the thalidomide in every pill taken by pregnant Australian women in the 1950s and 60s – including by Lyn’s mother - was made by Grunenthal at their own factory in Germany.
“Grunenthal never tested the drug on pregnant animals or followed up its effect in pregnant women, yet assured doctors the drug was exceptionally safe.
“Many of our clients would love to see Grunenthal held to account for their global actions on thalidomide. Grunenthal likes to say it did nothing wrong in relation to thalidomide but we challenge Grunenthal to make public its own thalidomide documents and let the public decide for themselves what they think of Grunenthal’s behaviour.”
Mr Magazanik said it was particularly pleasing that Diageo had agreed to include New Zealand claimants in the settlement discussions as well as claimants from all parts of Australia.
“Diageo says it wants to negotiate those claims in good faith and we welcome those sentiments.
“I have been to New Zealand this year to interview witnesses and speak with thalidomiders. We’ve always regarded New Zealand as a very important part of this case.”
Mr Gordon said the process of considering other claims has already begun and two other claims were well advanced.
“We are pleased to have resolved a process with Diageo for good faith negotiations to take place in Melbourne. We have been contacted by over 100 people. We will work through their claims as quickly as possible, although this is a complex issue. ”
During the process to consider other claims Lynette Rowe will remain the representative plaintiff unless otherwise ordered by the Court. She is proud to do so. Her lawyers will seek an adjournment in the trial due to begin on October 8 until at least August 2013 to allow this process to consider other claims to be worked through. At that time, any unresolved claims may go on against the current defendants including Grunenthal.
The next step in the class action is to close the class. Any thalidomiders in Australia or New Zealand who have not already registered with Gordon Legal or Slater and Gordon should consider doing so urgently.
Mr Gordon says the Lynette Rowe case has been a great opportunity to right some historic wrongs.
“Many of these people have battled horrendous difficulties for 50 years without help or justice. We want to ensure all thalidomiders have an opportunity to get justice.”