Parents reveal fury at lawyers' deadline over swine flu vaccine compensation

Pandemrix case litigants are given 28 days to accept half the value of compensation for alleged side-effects

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Parents of children who say they have developed life-altering side effects from the Pandemrix vaccine administered 10 years ago have criticised an ultimatum issued by the state’s lawyers giving them 28 days to accept an offer of “50%” of the value of their claims for compensation.

The state is facing 100 claims for damages from children and young adults over side-effects alleged to have arisen from the swine flu vaccine. Families claim their children have suffered chronic narcolepsy and cataplexy since receiving the vaccine, with devastating effects on their lives. The state, which denies liability, provided an indemnity to GlaxoSmithKline, the manufacturer of Pandemrix, to allow for the speedy provision of the vaccine in 2009 and 2010.

The state settled the first claim, brought to the High Court last year by student teacher Aoife Bennett, for an undisclosed amount and must pay Bennett’s legal bill of €6.3m. The state, which refuses to disclose its own legal costs for the case, is appealing against the legal bill. Bennett developed narcolepsy and catoplexy after receiving the vaccine in 2009, aged 16.

The second case due to go to trial in November is being brought by 15-year-old Ben Blackwell, who is being represented by Michael Boylan Solicitors, which also represented Bennett and 77 other claimants. On July 28, in a letter seen by The Sunday Times, Hayes Solicitors, representing the minister for health and the HSE, wrote to Boylan solicitors offering to settle 78 of the cases brought by his firm for “50%” of the “full value” of the claims plus “reasonable” legal costs. The offer had to be accepted within 28 days and the deals completed within six months.

The letter said the offer did not apply to cases where the state had a defence on causation, or on the statute of limitations. It did not specify which cases fell into this category.

Jenny Mahony, whose son Eoin, 17, is suing over severe side-effects he claims to have suffered as a result of the vaccine given to him aged seven, said she believed the offer had been made for public relations reasons, because its terms were so “unrealistic”. The offer from Hayes does not set out how the value of each claim can be determined, so families say they have no way of knowing how 50% of a claim’s value would be worked out. The offer is also conditional on all 78 of Boylan’s clients accepting the offer. Mahony said it was not realistic that everyone who is suing would be expected to agree to each individual offer.

Mahony wrote to Stephen Donnelly, the health minister, last week after he told the Dail he had nothing to do with the defence of the legal cases, because they were being handled by the State Claims Agency (SCA). “I do not have any legal authority to direct the SCA to deal in any particular way with a claim which falls to them to manage,” he said.

Mahony said her son was able to attend only 20 out of 127 school days before the school shutdown due to conditions he has developed from the vaccine which, she claims, have worsened in the past two years. The Mahonys engaged in fundraising to travel to the Mayo Clinic in America earlier this year to get treatment for their son. While they have access to a medical card, Mahony said this did not cover all her son’s medical costs and that its discretionary nature was a cause of worry.

“Our children need lifelong support because they took a vaccine promoted by the state,” said Mahony. “We are not anti-vaccine, but the government needs to step up here. They cannot wash their hands of this. We feel like we are pawns in a game”

In her letter to Donnelly, Mahony complained that the letter from Hayes states if the offer is not accepted, then plaintiffs may be held responsible for the costs of any legal hearings. She accuses the state of acting in a “threatening and adversarial manner”, contrasting this with Donnelly’s approach to addressing cervical cancer claim cases through a tribunal.

Mark Tighe

The Sunday Times