Victims of radiation overdose to sue

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

'IT SMELT as though my flesh was actually burning,' Jesus Ruiz Sanchez, a cancer victim, recalled after receiving radiotherapy in the Spanish city of Zaragoza before Christmas 1990. The 54-year-old was one of 27 people given up to seven times the recommended dose of radiation under a faulty linear accelerator a radiotherapy machine in the city's Hospital Clinico between 10 and 20 December that year. Repair work had left the machine's gauges inaccurate but the fault went unnoticed for 10 days.

Mr Ruiz Sanchez died of cancer on 15 February 1991, and 19 of the other 27 have died since. Relatives say all 20 died as a direct result of the radiation overdoses. Spain's national health institute, Insalud, accepts that the faulty machine was responsible for at least 10 of the deaths, but that the others might have died of cancer within the same time-scale anyway.

Now 11 people, including the hospital director, nurses, radiotherapists and the General Electric maintenance man who 'repaired' the accelerator a few days earlier have gone on trial, charged with negligence. Some face fines, others six months in jail but conclusion of the trial, probably this month, is likely to lead to huge compensation claims by survivors and the victims' families against the US giant. Lawyers are talking of a total dollars 500m (pounds 350m) claim.

'Strong sanctions against such companies are the only way to avoid such things happening again,' said Michael Repiso, a US lawyer following the trial. 'The life of one Spaniard, for a company that is 100 per cent American, cannot be valued at any less than that of someone who might have died in similar circumstances within the United States.'

General Electric has expressed 'profound sorrow' at the accident but has not explained the fault in the 1970s accelerator, of the Sagittaire type, now considered antiquated. Questioning at the trial suggests a chain of human errors and lax controls.

Spanish health officials say the accident was the worst of its kind. A similar problem at the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital in 1988 went undiscovered for five months, and it was never clear how many of those who died had been directly affected. The Exeter patients received 25 per cent more radioactivity than prescribed. In Zaragoza the overdose was 700 per cent: radioactivity penetrated 15cm (6in) into the patients' bodies, instead of the normal 2cm. This explained Mr Ruiz Sanchez's 'burning flesh' observation.

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