50 years ago today, the Aachen Regional Court terminated the Thalidomide proceedings against nine Grünenthal senior employees. The criminal trial is still considered one of the most complex and costly proceedings in German legal history. The legal and medical questions concerning the Thalidomide tragedy were complex and difficult to answer.
The Thalidomide tragedy will always be a part of our history. We will never forget what happened, and we deeply regret the terrible consequences for those affected and their families.
For this reason, on the occasion of the anniversary, we would like to briefly go into the most important questions about the process.
What was the Thalidomide trial about?
The “Thalidomide trial” was a criminal proceeding against nine senior Grünenthal employees. The Regional Court of Aachen examined a possibly negligent behavior by the individuals accused – in the context of the so-called Thalidomide tragedy. The sleeping aid and sedative Thalidomide was developed by Grünenthal and led to severe deformities in newborn children and in some cases to nerve damage in adults.
In the criminal proceedings, a possible negligent behavior of the nine accused senior Grünenthal employees was examined. It was not about claims for damages by the affected families. The families would have had to press such claims in subsequent, separate civil proceedings.
What was the verdict in the Thalidomide trial?
The trial was finally terminated without judgement. There were two reasons for this: The court considered the individual culpability of the accused as minor, despite the serious consequences. Furthermore, it was no longer necessary to continue the criminal proceedings for overriding reasons (designated as in “the public interest” in the Code of Criminal Proceedings). The Court referred to the fact that Grünenthal and the attorneys for the affected families had already reached a settlement.
Why were the individual accused found not culpable?
The judges justified the decision to terminate in detail in a nearly 100-page document. Even in the hypothetical case that, after an orderly completion of the proceedings, misconduct by the accused had been found, the individual culpability of the accused would have been considered minor, despite the serious consequences. Among other factors, the Court took into consideration that there had been no explicit advertising for the use of Thalidomide during pregnancy. In addition, the company withdrew its Thalidomide-containing products just a relatively short time after Prof. Lenz expressed his suspicions for the first time.
However, the process also revealed that taking Thalidomide resulted in nerve damage (Polyneuritis). The judges found that Grünenthal had not met the requirements of a proper, conscientious pharmaceutical manufacturer with regard to this nerve damage.
Further information on the procedure can be found in the section The substantive issues and results of the Thalidomide trial.
What did the Thalidomide trial mean for the people affected?
The Thalidomide trial was a criminal proceeding. The aim of this trial was to determine individual culpability of some employees of Grünenthal. Claims for damages by the families would have had to be pressed in subsequent, separate civil proceedings – which would presumably have lasted years.
Parallel to the criminal proceedings, which were directed against Grünenthal executives and were later discontinued, Grünenthal reached a settlement with representatives of the affected parties with regards to the civil law related claims. The Federal Thalidomide Foundation, established following the trial, still forms the basis of a financial support system for people affected by Thalidomide in 38 countries. At the time, Grünenthal paid more than DM 100 million (about 58 million euros), promised in the settlement into the Thalidomide Foundation and made a further contribution of 50 million euros in 2009.
In addition, Grünenthal established the “Grünenthal Foundation for the Support of Persons Affected by Thalidomide”, supports individual persons through the financing of non-monetary benefits and projects.
In addition, the "Grünenthal Foundation for the Support of Thalidomide Affected Persons" established by Grünenthal supports individuals by funding contributions in kind and projects. By maintaining an ongoing dialogue with people affected by Thalidomide, the foundation has been able to steadily increase its support in recent years.
You can find more information on how we support those affected by Thalidomide in the section Our Responsibility.