Appeals court revokes compensation to Spanish thalidomide victims

Madrid tribunal says claim was filed too late, but those affected vow to keep fighting

Thalidomide victims at the 2013 trial in Madrid.
Thalidomide victims at the 2013 trial in Madrid.Samuel Sánchez

The Provincial Court of Madrid has repealed an earlier decision granting financial compensation to the victims of the drug thalidomide, which caused severe deformities in newborns in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

A court had previously ruled in favor of Avite, the Spanish Association of Thalidomide Victims, which filed a suit in 2012 asking for €204 million in damages.

Thousands of babies born to women given thalidomide to combat morning sickness were born without arms and legs.

The drug was made by German firm Grünenthal, which synthesized, patented, commercialized and distributed thalidomide to the entire world in the 1950s.

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But now Madrid’s provincial court has ruled that the case should not have been filed in the first place because the statute of limitations had already passed. The association had all the necessary elements to file its suit in 2008, yet waited four more years, the court said.

Avite can now appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

The provincial court refused to count the period of prescription from 2010, the year when the Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero officially recognized people affected by thalidomide as victims.

“We cannot use this date (30-12-2010) to begin the calculation of the prescription period, because as stated earlier, a certain or at least probable diagnosis could have been requested from CIAC [an agency that answers to the Carlos III Health Institute] significantly before the Royal Decree 1006/2010 was signed into law.”

“This is a very low blow,” said Avite president José Riquelme. “We find it simply unbelievable that the judge at Madrid’s Court of First Instance No. 90 saw no statute of limitations, and now three judges at the Provincial Court of Madrid are saying the period of prescription has elapsed.”

Madrid’s provincial court says the case should not have been filed because the statute of limitations had passed

Riquelme added that the victims would keep fighting for as long as they had “breath and life left in them.”

The decision has been welcomed by Grünenthal, which had challenged the lower court’s order to pay each victim €20,000 for every percentage point of disability officially recognized by the state.

The pharmaceutical issued a statement stressing that there were already “specific and efficient means” for all victims to seek economic aid. The new ruling, said the company, proves that the plaintiffs “did not prove their allegations” and that, 50 years after the fact, “it is impossible to begin a valid court case.”

The original ruling awarded compensation to just 20 of the 186 victims who were suing for damages. The amounts ranged from €660,000 to €1,980,000.