Toronto — Activists and lawyers for victims of the worst public-health disaster in Canadian history lashed out in anger Monday after an Ontario judge acquitted the former national medical director of the Canadian Red Cross and three other doctors of criminal charges in the tainted-blood scandal.
Critics called it "ludicrous" that the court acquitted Dr. Roger Perrault, 70, along with the three doctors and a New Jersey pharmaceutical company for their alleged roles in the blood scandal that left thousands of Canadians infected with HIV or hepatitis C.
Dr. Perrault's lawyer, however, called the ruling an "absolute vindication" and a "complete exoneration."
Dr. Perrault had been facing four charges of criminal negligence causing bodily harm and one charge of common nuisance for allegedly giving hemophilia patients an HIV-infected blood-clotting product in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Also acquitted were Dr. John Furesz and Dr. Donald Wark Boucher, formerly of Canada's Health Protection Branch, and Dr. Michael Rodell, a former vice-president of New Jersey-based Armour Pharmaceutical.
Armour, which had also been facing charges, was acquitted as well.
"There was no conduct that showed wanton and reckless disregard," Superior Court Justice Mary Lou Benotto said in delivering her verdict.
"There was no marked departure from the standard of a reasonable person. On the contrary, the conduct examined in detail for over one-and-a-half years confirms reasonable, responsible and professional actions and responses during a difficult time."
Silence fell over the courtroom as Judge Benotto delivered the acquittals.
"The events here were tragic," she said. "However, to assign blame where none exists is to compound the tragedy."
John Plater of the Canadian Hemophilia Society could barely contain his bewilderment at the verdict.
"We're going to be reading it carefully to understand how she possibly could have suggested that what they were doing at the time, the decisions they were making, were somehow professional and reasonable," he said.
"If you, on the one hand, have a study that says there's a problem, and on the other hand have a study that says maybe there isn't a problem, any reasonable person takes the product off the market. They didn't. People were infected, and people died.
"How that could be considered reasonable behaviour is beyond us."
James Kreppner, a lawyer who contacted both HIV and hepatitis C from tainted blood, shared Mr. Plater's incredulity.
"I find it distressing," Mr. Kreppner said, his failing health evident from his gaunt appearance and hunched stance. "To call that professional conduct, you just can't justify that."
Dr. Perrault, the three doctors and the drug company all pleaded not guilty. Lawyers for the three doctors alleged the Crown didn't present enough evidence to prove its case.
"Today's absolute vindication and (Perrault's) complete exoneration is something we've been hoping for and actually expected," said Dr. Perrault's lawyer, Eddie Greenspan.
"A very intelligent, careful trial judge found not one wit of evidence against any of the accused. ... The bottom line was there was no criminal conduct by anyone who was in charge."
The counts of criminal negligence focused specifically on four victims — who cannot be named under a court order — who contracted HIV from tainted blood. Three of them have died.
The victims of common nuisance represented people living in Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba and Alberta.
A second trial for Dr. Perrault is set to begin later this year in Hamilton, where he will face several more criminal charges stemming from allegations that the Red Cross and senior officials failed to take adequate measures to screen donors.
Mike McCarthy, a long-time activist on behalf of victims of the tainted-blood tragedy who himself contracted hepatitis C from a blood transfusion in 1984, said the fight is far from over.
"For hemophiliacs like myself and others and those who have died before, this isn't the end of the line," said Mr. McCarthy, who's now pinning his hopes on the Hamilton trial.
"This is just a bus stop to justice."
More than 1,000 Canadians became infected with blood-borne HIV, and up to 20,000 others contracted hepatitis C after receiving tainted blood products.
It's not clear how many people have died as a result, but the death toll was 3,000 as of 1997.
Steven Fletcher, the parliamentary secretary to Health Minister Tony Clement, didn't comment on the ruling but said the government has done "everything it can in this regard."
"The victims of tainted blood will start receiving compensation, which varies from the tens of thousands of dollars to $400,000, so the government will be processing those applications as well," Mr. Fletcher said.
In May 2006, the Canadian Red Cross apologized to tens of thousands of Canadians infected with AIDS or hepatitis C.
In exchange for a guilty plea under the federal Food and Drugs Act, the Crown withdrew charges of criminal negligence causing bodily harm and common nuisance against the charity.
The Red Cross accepted responsibility and said it would pay a $5,000 fine and dedicate $1.5-million to a scholarship fund and research project aimed at reducing medical errors.