Government accused of ‘scare tactics’ to deter swine flu vaccine cases

Victim’s mother says the state is spinning High Court loss to deter other claimants
Victim’s mother says the state is spinning High Court loss to deter other claimants

A 26-year-old woman and her mother have criticised government “spin” after a confidential settlement last week in the first High Court case involving people who claim to suffer narcolepsy arising from a swine flu vaccine.

Last Wednesday, the state agreed a settlement with Aoife Bennett, a student teacher, without admitting liability on the effects of administering the Pandemrix vaccine. The trial took 22 days, and a large legal bill was incurred by 25 lawyers in the case.

A report in last Thursday’s Irish Times said the likely settlement was around the maximum of €200,000, plus inflation, as set out in a 2007 steering group review for no-fault redress schemes. The article said the case was a “victory” for the state because there was no admission of liability, and speculated that further cases from the 100-strong cohort suing over the vaccine were “most unlikely”.

A report in the same newspaper on Thursday quoted “senior government figures” expressing “huge relief about the case” and saying the settlement was “considerably” lower than “feared”.

Mary Bennett, Aoife’s mother, said that she was “very disappointed” with the “political spin”, which she described as “scare tactics”.

Aoife Bennett was given the vaccine while at school in December 2009 as part of the state’s inoculation campaign against swine flu. Since then she says she has suffered severe bouts of narcolepsy that have had profound negative effects on her life.

“These settlement figures have been plucked out of the air,” said Mary Bennett, who is a member of Sound, a support group for families affected by the vaccine. “It is like they are trying to scare off other families from getting justice.”

Bennett said the confidentiality agreement with the state meant she could not say what her daughter had received, but confirmed it was in excess of €200,000 plus inflation. “We are very satisfied with the settlement,” she said, but added that they were surprised by the robust cross-examination they had received during the trial “and the spin that has come since”.

She claimed that her family had been forced down the legal route. Despite the state accepting that Aoife and others were entitled to discretionary medical cards, Bennett said that the state had refused to offer any compensation until last week.

Aoife Bennett said she felt it was “really low” for government sources to express delight over her settlement. “It’s bad enough the treatment we have got from the state over the years, but to come out like that is just bad,” she said. The Bennetts said there were many very ill children in the other cases, and they would encourage them all to proceed.

“For us this took seven years, and that was the worst part,” said Aoife Bennett. “The other families will not have that long to wait. I hope others would not face the same cross-examination we had, but even if they do I’d encourage them to [proceed]. It’s one day in the stand, but this settlement is for the rest of your life. I will never have to worry about affording medication and health supports. I will be able to work part-time, afford rent and get on with my life.”

Gillian O’Connor, Bennett’s lawyer from Michael Boylan solicitors, has another 79 Pandemrix clients. She claims that some have suffered social and personal isolation arising from their conditions, as they had been labelled lazy. O’Connor insisted the Bennett case was “not a win for the state, either financially or morally”.

The State Claims Agency, which managed the case for the state, said it is examining all outstanding Pandemrix cases to see how each should be resolved. Its approach is to “ensure that litigation is handled professionally and as sensitively as possible”, while observing statutory requirements.

The Department of Health said it would bring forward an ex-gratia reimbursement scheme “related to this issue”.

Mark Tighe

The Sunday Times