Case against doctors over epilepsy drug's pregnancy risks settled for €12m
A teenager’s case alleging two doctors failed to properly inform his mother about the risks of taking certain seizure-controlling drugs while pregnant has settled for €12 million.
Carlow-based Alex Fahey (16) claimed he suffered neurological damage as a baby due to his mother, Helen Maher Fahey, taking sodium valproate, under the brand name Epilim, while pregnant.
He was diagnosed with autism and foetal valproate syndrome disorder, which is associated with sodium valproate during pregnancy. The medical understanding of the drug’s effects on foetuses has expanded in recent decades.
Through his mother, the Rathvilly teenager sued general practitioner Dr Patrick Feeney, who practices in Stillorgan, Co Dublin, and consultant neurologist Dr Janice Redmond, who works at a private clinic at St James’s Hospital in Dublin.
All of the claims are denied and were due to be fully defended during a hearing that opened on Wednesday and was scheduled to last six weeks.
On Thursday, Mr Justice Paul Coffey was told the case had settled, without any admission of liability, for €12 million against both defendants, plus the plaintiff’s legal costs.
He said he would be failing in his duty if he did not approve the settlement, given it seemed to him the plaintiff’s lawyers had effectively achieved a sum equal to their €12.8 million valuation of the claim.
The court heard Alex requires constant watching and his difficulties will prevent him from gaining employment as an adult.
Addressing the judge, Ms Fahey said she was happy the case had “turned out like this” but she wished it didn’t have to happen.
“It is a very difficult thing to accept, but I know Alex will have the best life he can have and be looked after, because we are not always going to be here, obviously,” she said.
Ms Fahey said she hoped her family’s case showed other parents whose children have been affected like Alex they can “take the same path to get justice” and to ensure their children are looked after.
When the case opened on Wednesday, Mr Justice Garrett Simons was told Ms Fahey’s prescription for Epilim was increased and she was prescribed another anti-convulsant drug called Lamictal in 1997.
After becoming pregnant in April 2005 she rang her neurologist’s office with concerns about Lamictal, Aongus O’Brolchain SC, instructed by Michael Boylan solicitor Ciara McPhillips, told the court on Wednesday. She cannot recall whether she spoke directly to the neurologist or to her secretary, but she felt reassured by the call, he said.
Mr O’Brolchain said Ms Fahey had no concerns about Epilim, which she had taken in a lower dose during previous pregnancies, as she had been told before that it was safe and folic acid would substantially reduce risks.
Counsel said she was not made aware that by 2005 it was known among medical professionals that there were serious risks with taking Epilim during pregnancy, including developmental delay for the baby. Ms Fahey knew the associated risks up to 1998, he added.
Ms Fahey had a miscarriage, which is not the subject of any claims, but became pregnant with Alex in late 2005.
It transpired that, following Ms Fahey’s phone call in April, the neurologist contacted the GP in May stating Ms Fahey needed to be informed about the medication’s risks.
The GP sent a letter in June to Ms Fahey’s old address asking her to contact the surgery about the neurologist’s message. She didn’t receive the letter, counsel said.
Mr O’Brolchain said the risks of the drug Epilim should have been explained to Ms Fahey who “clearly wanted to have a child”.
Counsel said the neurologist initially prescribed and set Ms Fahey’s medication dosage, while the GP wrote repeat prescriptions for the drugs.
She did not contact the neurologist with concerns when pregnant with Alex, the court heard in response to a question from Mr Justice Simons on Wednesday.
Counsel for the neurologist said his client would say Ms Fahey was invited to her office following the April 2005 call but the offer was declined. He also said there were no alternative treatment options in 2005 that were known to carry fewer risks.