13 years after my son died, it's great to get my day in court
Published 26/06/2010 | 05:00
Liam Grant was a young man with all of life's advantages on his side. The 19 year old was handsome, popular and academic, in his second year of an engineering degree at UCD.
He was equally talented in sport and in music, played in a band and had built a recording studio in the garden of his family's comfortable suburban home in Terenure, Dublin.
He had a firm eye on the future, working his way towards a career as a sound engineer. He was "an outgoing young man", his only concern apparently a mild case of acne on his neck and shoulders. For this, Liam was prescribed Roaccutane, a strong acne medication, by a dermatologist in February 1997.
Thirteen years on, his father, Liam Senior, pinpoints this as the time when his son's character changed dramatically. The young student withdrew from friends and family, spending more time in his bedroom, the curtains drawn because he said light bothered him. He instructed his younger brother to tell friends who called to see him that he wasn't at home.
In June 1997, Liam was found hanging from a tree in the foothills of the Dublin mountains. He left a note expressing his belief that he had few friends and that the turnout for his funeral would prove it. In that respect he was entirely, poignantly, wrong.
Since an inquest jury returned a verdict of death by suicide for Liam, his father has been battling to prove that his son had taken his own life as a direct result of taking Roaccutane -- and that Roche, the pharmaceutical giant that manufactures the drug, knew of the risks and failed to sufficiently warn patients of them.
Roche denies that Roaccutane causes "psychiatric events" but in a victory for father-of-four Mr Grant this week, the European Ombudsman has ordered the European Medicines Agency to collate and hand over to him all adverse reaction reports it has received relating to Roaccutane. The information will be vital when Mr Grant finally squares up to Roche in a High Court case within the coming 12 months.
"It has taken seven years to get to this point," Mr Grant, now 61, told Review this week. In 2004, he sued Roche in the High Court. The company offered to pay him the maximum compensation under law for the death of his son -- about €30,000 -- as well as his costs and special damages. This offer would not, however, include any admission of liability on Roche's part for Liam Junior's death.
"Six years ago, Roche made me an offer plus legal costs and I wouldn't take it. Then their appeal in the Supreme Court (to make him accept their offer) failed and I was allowed to proceed. We have been waiting for this for a long time now so it's really good for us that we will have the case heard in the next year.
"I would say that anyone taking on a pharmaceutical company like this would really want to understand what they have taken on," says Mr Grant, referring to the David vs Goliath nature of his challenge to Roche.
As a forensic accountant with some 40 years' experience, he has some experience of drawn-out legal processes.
Mr Grant says he has never been "intimidated one iota" by the lengthy legal challenge because, he says, "I am used to this kind of work". His accountancy firm has acted as experts in the Mahon Inquiry, formerly the Flood Tribunal.
Yet the personal toll on the Grant family since young Liam's death is immeasurable. Mr Grant has spent over €1m in building a case against Roche, gradually selling off a portfolio of properties he had invested in to fund his retirement. He has funded several independent research studies into the side effects of Roaccutane, including one which was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
The drug, which went under the brand name Accutane in the US, was pulled from the American market last year. Roche says that decision was for purely business reasons, and still strongly denies the medication can cause suicide, but the drug has been cited in scores of personal injury cases there. Roaccutane is still prescribed to acne sufferers in Ireland.
Roche Pharmaceuticals Ireland told Review that while they wouldn't comment on the European Ombudsman's decision or the Grant case in specifics, "the wellbeing of the patients taking our medicines is of primary importance, and we are constantly monitoring the safety of all of our medicines, including Roaccutane (isotretinoin)."
The Roche statement added: "Since 1982, over 15 million patients worldwide have been treated with Roaccutane. Although there have been very rare reports of suicides and suicidal ideation in patients with acne being treated with the medicine, the fact is that severe acne can cause some sufferers to become depressed and can also affect their mood and self-esteem."
Roche also says that a patient information leaflet provided with Roaccutane advises that patients tell their doctor if they "notice any change in mood or behaviour" while taking the drug. However, Mr Grant maintains that this warning was not included by Roche with the drug in Ireland at the time it was prescribed to Liam in 1997.
The battle clearly isn't about money for Liam Grant Senior. He was firmly supported in his ongoing case against Roche by his wife Loyola until she died three years ago, just before the Supreme Court ruling.
"It isn't for the weak-hearted," he says of his continuing battle. "But this is my son we're talking about."