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Landmark legal victory against GPs brings hope
to thousands who are over-prescribed

The Observer
Sunday, June 23, 2002
by Tracy McVeigh

For more than a decade he lived in a state of suicidal depression that drove him into what he calls a 'twilight world of fear and paranoia'.

He lost his job and his friends. His wife and son lost a husband and father. For 14 years, Raymond Nimmo was prescribed diazepam - Valium - by his doctor and he took it thinking it was helping him.

But, like an estimated one and a half million other people in Britain, Nimmo was addicted to benzodiazepine, a class of powerful tranquillisers that has been responsible for more deaths per year in Britain than cocaine, heroin and methadone combined.

Now the 50-year-old has become one of the first patients to win a financial settlement in recognition of his GPs' clinical negligence in over-prescribing a medication that destroyed his life.

And his 40,000 payout will encourage many others whose lives have been ruined by benzodiazepines, but for whom legal action has always failed in the past.

In 1984 Nimmo consulted a GP about a dental infection. He was prescribed an antibiotic, but suffered what he now knows was an allergic reaction that gave him severe abdominal pains. But at the time he was told that this pain was caused by a muscle spasm and was prescribed a powerful benzodiazepine.

The pain persisted and Nimmo was prescribed a variety of different tranquillisers until, by early 1985, he was taking high doses of diazepam and his condition has deteriorated to the point that his doctor described him as 'incurably anxious and incurably chronically depressed'.

To make matters worse, Nimmo was then prescribed a cocktail of powerful antidepressants and other drugs to try to treat the side-effects of Valium that began to increase in their severity - suicidal depression, agoraphobia, insomnia and panic attacks, as well as itching, sweating, dyspepsia and flu-like symptoms.

'My whole life just started to slide,' says Nimmo, from Scunthorpe. 'What had begun as a dental infection was now a chronic condition, and I had no idea it was induced by the Valium. I had no reason not to trust the doctors.'

Within a year, he had to leave his job as a company director. He existed on state benefits as he withdrew into a 14-year nightmare.

'My wife and I had always wanted more children, but I thought I was too mentally unstable to be a father.'

In 1998, an ultrasound scan brought a diagnosis that turned Nimmo's world upside down. 'The surgeon looked at me and said the drugs you are addicted to will damage your auto-immune system. It was like a bolt of lightning.'

Nimmo immediately changed his GP and was helped through a three-month programme to wean him off Valium. Last June he was given a clean bill of mental health, although he suspects he may have permanent brain damage, still suffers muscular pains and numbness and has been diagnosed as having Protracted Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Syndrome.

'At first I was very angry when I realised what my GPs had done to me. I sought their help and they poisoned me with drugs for 14 years and blamed me for everything I had suffered.'

Taking action against his GPs in Scunthorpe - husband and wife Dr Shambhulingappa and Dr Ugargol - was not easy. Despite growing campaigns for a rethink on the use of benzodiazepines, previous efforts to take legal action against doctors and the pharmaceutical giants had always failed.

Nimmo's solicitor, Caroline Moore of Medical Solicitors in Sheffield, said: 'I felt very strongly about what had been done to this man and I know there are thousands in a similar position.

'Many have been put off pursuing prescribers for various reasons. They think they are out of time, as the usual rule is that proceedings should be taken within three years. However, the courts do have discretion to allow awards in some strong cases.'

Michael Behan is another former benzodiazepine addict who has been trying for 16 years to take his case to court.

'There are so many in the same position, caught in a tranquilliser trap.' he said. 'It is a hidden misery. The reason this case is such a breakthrough is that the legal system has until now been unable to deal with these claims.

'But it is not only the GPs who are at fault here. There is responsibility to be shared with the pharmaceutical companies who are marketing these drugs and with the Government, which is taking no action.'

Around 17 million prescriptions are issued for benzodiazepines in Britain every year. There is widespread failure to adhere to advice that they should not be prescribed for more than four weeks.

For Nimmo, recognition of the damage inflicted on him is more important than the money: 'When I look back on those dark years of tranquilliser addiction, it seems as if it happened to someone else and I am grateful I have the opportunity to live again - so many do not have the chance.'

Website and support group for tranquilliser sufferers www.benzo.org.uk.

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