Needles re-used to take blood

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SMITHKLINE BEECHAM, the British pharmaceuticals company, is being sued in the United States after one of its employees was found to have reused disposable needles when taking blood samples.

Up to 15,300 patients may have been inadvertently exposed to hepatitis B, hepatitis C or HIV. If all these patients joined a class action, the group could face a potential liability of around pounds 2.5bn.

As the pounds 45bn company yesterday celebrated its 10th anniversary, it confirmed that it had spent pounds 10m tracing and testing the 15,300 patients thought to have been put at risk by Elaine Giorgi's actions at a clinic in Palo Alto, California and several others in the surrounding area. She was dismissed in March.

Only 5,000 have been tested, and of those the incidence of hepatitis A, B, and C and HIV, the virus that can lead to Aids, has been lower than exists in the population at large. It is thought at least 10 people were found to have hepatitis and one HIV.

Two per cent of the US population generally develop hepatitis, which would suggest that around 300 of the affected population could claim they contracted hepatitis as a result of Ms Giorgi's neglect.

The first case is expected to be filed within two weeks by three firms, including Hawkins Blick, representing around 4,000 plaintiffs. Linda Hawkins, the wife of Charlie Hawkins, owner of Hawkins Blick, is the lead plaintiff.

Mr Hawkins said yesterday: "We are claiming only for the emotional distress caused by discovering that one has been placed at risk. You must remember that most of these people spend their lives trying to avoid contracting these diseases. They were mortified. SB has not answered our interrogatories yet."

Under Californian state law the maximum damages payout per person for medical negligence is $250,000 (pounds 156,000). Awards would be based on estimates of the degree of emotional distress. In addition, SB could face claims for lost earnings and the cost of treatment from plaintiffs held to have contracted illnesses as a result of the reused needles.

The most sizeable, though least likely, financial blow would be a claim for punitive damages. But judges would have to rule SB was acting deliberately. It has made provisions of pounds 15m so far but says any excess costs from the case would be covered by professional indemnity insurance.

However, that insurance provision is placed within SB itself and not with a third-party insurer. The company declined to explain how its insurance system worked. Russell Levy, partner at Leigh, Day & Co, the law firm involved in the US tobacco settlements, said: "The purpose of punitive damages is to prevent a company behaving in the same way again by making the cost of doing so too high. But in most cases the high-profile awards are scaled down on appeal."

Jeremy Heymsfeld, SB's US spokesman, said: "We immediately consulted the state and only 3,500 people, those who had attended the Palo Alto clinic, were strongly urged to be re-tested. The state did not recommend that the other 11,000 or so be tested, but to be prudent we have offered it."

Ms Giorgi worked for Clinical Labs, a division of SB which is due to be sold later this year.