31st January 1999
Tainted-blood victims will launch a $300-million lawsuit today against two companies and the federal government over the shipment to Canada of contaminated plasma from U.S. prisons.
The lawsuit follows a series of investigative stories by the Ottawa Citizen last fall that revealed how a U.S. firm with links to Bill Clinton, the U.S. president, collected bad blood from Arkansas prison inmates and sold it abroad.
The class-action lawsuit will involve about 200 haemophiliacs infused with the prison plasma in the early 1980s and who later developed hepatitis C.
In their statement of claim, to be filed in a Toronto court, the victims will allege the companies that distributed the plasma - believed to be infected with HIV and hepatitis C - were negligent, and that federal regulators were also at fault. The victims' lawyer, David Harvey, said yesterday they are seeking about $300-million in damages.
"Everybody turned a blind eye because they were making money, and they sacrificed our lives," said lead plaintiff Mike McCarthy, a Waterloo, Ont., resident with hepatitis C. "There has to be justice here."
By early 1983, U.S. companies that fractionate blood products had stopped buying prison plasma -- at the request of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) -- because it was widely understood that, since many inmates practiced unsafe gay sex or were intravenous drug addicts, their blood posed a high risk of carrying the AIDS virus.
However, this didn't stop prison blood centres from selling their products to foreign companies.
The companies being sued are: Connaught Laboratories, a Toronto-based firm that manufactured blood products for Canadian patients, many of them haemophiliacs, and Continental Pharma Cryosan, a Montreal blood broker that imported plasma from prisons in Arkansas and Louisiana and resold it to Connaught.
At the Krever inquiry, Connaught said it didn't realize it was buying inmates' plasma and that the shipping papers accompanying the plasma had not revealed the centre was located in a prison. They simply referred to the source as the "ADC Plasma Center, Grady, Arkansas," without any indication "ADC" stood for Arkansas Department of Corrections.
As well, although Connaught had received an FDA inspection report that revealed the centre was in a prison, the report was not reviewed by the company.
Mr. Harvey said that constitutes negligence.
"They're manufacturing the product. It's their obligation to ensure that the raw materials that they're purchasing are of good quality. That requires them to know everything about how and where the materials are being collected."
As for Continental Pharma, company president Thomas Hecht told the Citizen last November his firm did know it was importing prison plasma. But he insisted scientific knowledge at the time didn't indicate inmates' plasma was any riskier than the general population. As well, he said his firm supplied "U.S. government licensed product and never denied its origins" to customers including Connaught.
The victims will contend in their lawsuit that Continental knew, or should have known, about the higher risks associated with prison plasma.
The federal government is being sued for allegedly failing its responsibilities as the blood system's safety regulator by neglecting to properly police the two firms. Regulators in Health Canada apparently didn't know that Connaught and Continental were dealing in prison plasma, which the Red Cross had stopped collecting in Canada as far back as 1971.
"It's their obligation to regulate the industry,"said Mr. Harvey.