When is a Government Advisory Committee Liable?

United Kingdom

This case examined the liability in private law of a government advisory body to an individual. It was a claim for personal injuries by the Claimant against the Secretary of State for Health sued on behalf of the Committee on Safety of Medicines (CSM). The Claimant was born on 22 July 1979. On 21 May 1986 she had chickenpox. Her mother gave her aspirin. On 23 May her condition severely worsened and she was eventually admitted to hospital. She was diagnosed as suffering from Reye’s Syndrome. The Claimant is now seriously and permanently disabled. She has spastic tetraplegia and suffers from epilepsy. She is wholly dependent and cannot speak.

On 10 June 1986 it was widely announced that all junior aspirin preparations were withdrawn after warnings from the CSM that it could trigger Reye’s Syndrome. Parents were warned never to give aspirin to children unless specifically instructed by a doctor. The Claimant alleged that the breach of duty was an unreasonable delay in publishing the warning. The alleged delay was one of three months when after a meeting of the CSM on 26 March 1986 the Claimant alleged that public warnings should have been given a week or so later.

The claim was dismissed. The Court held that on these facts the actions of the CSM were of a policy rather than operational nature and as such were not justiciable in private law. The Court held that the CSM had acted throughout rationally and in good faith in reaching decisions implementing them carefully and expeditiously in the interests of the public at large and children, in particular having regard the risks of very serious injury to children from taking aspirin when feverish. The Judge said that the postponed decision was “reasonably justifiable in that there was a risk that without that postponement the prospect of full positive co-operation from the industry which, in the event, achieved so much might be lost.

The Court pointed out that the CSM did not enjoy blanket immunity and that there were circumstances in which the CSM could be found liable. This case is of interest to healthcare lawyers and those concerned with the regulation of medicinal products. For further information please contact Anthony Barty by e-mail [email protected] or by telephone on +44(0)20 7367 2117