Triumph as victims of CJD error win cash fight

Following a bitter battle, eight families have won the right to claim compensation for the death of relatives after a medical warning was ignored
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EIGHT families who lost relatives to CJD following treatment with human growth hormone yesterday won the right to claim compensation from the Government.

The High Court ruling signalled a triumphant end to a nine-year battle for the families who have submitted compensation claims totalling more than pounds 1m. The finding is likely to pave the way for many more claims.

Between 1959 and 1985 nearly 2,000 British children whose growth was stunted because of a deficiency in the secretion of growth hormone in their pituitary glands were treated with hormone from the pituitaries of human cadavers.

Two years ago, the Department of Health was found negligent in not heeding the warning of Dr Alan Dickinson, who in 1977 told the Medical Research Council about the risk of contracting CJD from the hormone treatment. The ruling cleared the way for families of victims treated after 1 July 1977 to seek compensation. Yesterday Mr Justice Morland ruled that families of victims whose treatment "straddled" the compensation cut off date could also seek compensation.

After the ruling, Stephen Irwin QC, representing the families of 13 victims, said that the Department of Health would "no doubt" consider admitting liability swiftly "so as to relieve the minds of the families". Five of the families he represents have yet to have their cases determined.

Among the successful families yesterday was that of Saul Hefferon-Walden, who died of CJD at the age of 20 in 1988.

Saul, who was treated with growth hormone between the ages of seven and 17, first became sick while studying for his A-levels. His father, Don Hefferon, of Paddington, west London, said the family put his condition down to "the average young man's lifestyle of late nights, discos and drinking cider in the union bar".

Mr Hefferon said his son had been offered a place at the Anglia Polytechnic but found his concentration and writing becoming difficult.

"I feel more distressed than angry or bitter. I had always presumed the NHS was there to really care for people ... in extreme distress, whatever their particular illness," he said. "I am very happy there has been this decision, but I am sad that not all people have been included in it."

Terence Newman, another CJD victim, died in December 1990 at the age of 21 following treatment with human growth hormone between the ages of six and 18. His mother Maureen Newman, 48, from Coulsdon, Surrey, said: "I am very pleased with the judgment, I just wish it had all finished a couple of years ago for us. Now we know we have won we can let Terry rest."

She stressed that, without legal aid, she could never have fought the case.

David Body, of Irwin Mitchell solicitors, representing the plaintiffs, said: "After the Department of Health was found negligent in 1996, our suggestion that all remaining cases be compensated was fought at every step ... These families were fighting a government that refused a public inquiry and so had to seek their justice at court."

Leigh-Ann Mulchahy, counsel for the Department of Health, said: "My clients wish to have an opportunity to consider the judgment and consider whether or not they wish to appeal it in any way."

In a later judgment, expected in July, Mr Justice Morland will rule in test cases brought by six people who received the growth treatment and who live in fear of contracting CJD.