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Judge dismisses charges from doctors in tainted-blood scandal

Three doctors, a New Jersey company and a former Red Cross official were acquitted in a tainted-blood scandal that infected thousands of Canadians with HIV or hepatitis and resulted in more than 3,000 deaths.

Toronto Superior Court Justice Mary Lou Benotto ruled that the defendants did not show conduct displaying wanton and reckless disregard in the use of the blood and that there was no marked departure from the standards of a reasonable person.

"The conduct examined in detail over one and a half years confirms reasonable and responsible and professional actions and responses during this difficult time," she said. "The allegations of criminal conduct on the part of these men and this corporation were not only unsupported by the evidence, they were disproved.

"The events here were tragic," the judge said. "However, to assign blame where none exists is to compound the tragedy."

It was the first criminal case linked to one of Canada's worst public health disasters. More than 3,000 Canadians died after becoming infected with the AIDS-causing HIV virus or hepatitis C after they received transfusions using tainted blood products.

John Plater of the Canadian Hemophilia Society expressed bewilderment at the verdict, questioning how the judge could suggest that the defendants' actions "were somehow professional and reasonable."

"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," Plater said. "How that could be considered reasonable behavior is beyond us."

The case involved blood products produced by New Jersey-based Armour Pharmaceutical Co. in the 1980s and early 1990s that turned out to be infected. Also charged were Dr. Roger Perrault, the former medical director for the Canadian Red Cross; Dr. John Furesz and Dr. Donald Wark Boucher, former officials at the federal agency Health Canada, and Dr. Michael Rodell, a former vice president of Armour Pharmaceutical.

Perrault pleaded not guilty to criminal negligence causing bodily harm for allegedly giving hemophilia patients an HIV-infected blood-clotting product.

The other doctors and the drug company also pleaded not guilty. Defense lawyers argued that prosecutors did not present enough evidence to prove their case.

A second trial for Perrault is set to begin later this year in Hamilton, Ontario, where he will face more criminal charges stemming from allegations that the Red Cross and its senior officials failed to take adequate measures to screen blood donors.

The Canadian Red Cross pleaded guilty in 2005 to distributing blood tainted with HIV and hepatitis C and was fined $5,000 Canadian (US$5,000; 3,513 EUR). The Red Cross apologized and dedicated $1.5 million Canadian (US$1.5 million; 1.05 million EUR) to a scholarship fund and research project aimed at reducing medical errors.

Responsibility for Canada's blood supply for all provinces except Quebec was later transferred from the Canadian Red Cross to Canadian Blood Services.

After a five-year investigation, police laid criminal charges in the case.

Last year, the Canadian government announced a $1 billion Canadian (US $1 billion, 703 million EUR) medical compensation package for all those infected with hepatitis C from tainted blood - expanding a previous package that excluded thousands.

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