Court overturns tribunal's refusal of daughter's award in 'one of the worse cases' of blood product infection

By Ann O'Loughlin

The High Court has overturned the rejection of an award for psychological suffering and shock by the Hepatitis C compensation tribunal to the daughter of a man who died from HIV infection from contaminated blood products

The tribunal had described his death as “one of the worse cases" before it.

Mr Justice Bernard Barton ordered the matter be sent back to the tribunal "for assessment and award".

He said it was hard to reconcile making of an award to the man’s wife in 2009 over what it said were the “horrific” circumstances of the death, and then not find in favour of the daughter for circumstances that were also horrific.

The daughter, who was a teenager when her father died and is now 44, had appealed to the court against the Minister for Health and Children, with the Hepatitis C and HIV Compensation Tribunal as a notice party, over the tribunal's February 2015 decision to dismiss her claim.

Her father suffered from severe Haemophilia A, a genetic deficiency in the body's natural clotting system which causes increased bleeding and usually affects males.

He was one of more than 100 haemophilia sufferers who received blood transfusions which were contaminated. He contracted HIV and died from complications from the disease in 1989, at the age of 40.

In 2009, the tribunal made an award to his wife over the shock she suffered as a result of the circumstances leading up to and after his death.

"He had a very great number of serious, often very painful illnesses and a very hard death. He was completely shattered, obviously, by the knowledge that he had HIV," the tribunal said.

At the time (1989), there was little appreciation by medics and hospitals as to how to deal with HIV patients or how to deal with their families, the tribunal said.

The manner in which his corpse was dealt with left his widow with a lasting shock

He and his wife went of considerable lengths to keep his condition secret.

"This is one of the worse cases which we have dealt with", the tribunal said.

Mr Justice Barton, in dealing with the daughter's claim, said that despite her mother and father’s efforts at secrecy, in the small house the family lived in, privacy was difficult to achieve. Conversations and noises - including uncontrolled bouts of crying by the husband - were easily overheard.

At the time of his death, he was only the seventh known AIDS sufferer to die in Ireland and the first in his home town, the judge said.

The stigma which attached at the time to death in such circumstances was not just social, but medical, he said.

Patient isolation, face masks, hand washing and the way in which the corpse was dealt with - the body was not laid out but zipped up in body bag and put in a sealed coffin - were examples of that.

Mourners at the funeral questioned the circumstances and were overheard by the daughter, the judge said.

The mother “created an elaborate fiction” to ensure the cause of death remained hidden by telling everyone he died of cancer.

Despite knowing what was really going on, the daughter hid it from her mother and went along with the socially acceptable explanation. Her mother did not know this, or if she did, chose to believe otherwise, the judge said.

The daughter started to smoke and to drink alcohol in her teens to help her cope with a progressively deteriorating situation.

She partially took on the role of looking after her younger siblings after her mother’s health collapsed. She managed to complete her education and get a good job but she ended up with a child in a “hopelessly unsuitable marriage”, the judge said.

The daughter’s own health deteriorated. She became seriously depressed, and was admitted to hospital in 2006 with the illness which she continues to suffer from.

While the tribunal was not satisfied she had met the requirements for shock-induced illness, the judge accepted her evidence about the impact of the death on her psychologically.

The judge allowed her appeal and remitted the matter back to the tribunal "for assessment and award".

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