100 South Australians Join Class Action
Article and photo courtesy of Adelaide Now and The Advertiser
March 1, 2010
QUESTIONS: British lawyer Anna Mazzola notes details of babies’ graves in Woomera Cemetery.
Picture: MARK BRAKE
BRIAN LITTELY REPORTS:
SECRET records detailing the fate of dozens of babies born in the shadow of Maralinga’s nuclear testing hold the key to a case building as the state’s largest class action.
More than 100 South Australians have joined a class action against the British Ministry of Defence over deaths and disabilities they believe were caused by nuclear testing at Maralinga more than 50 years ago.
Among them are families of the Woomera babies – more than 60 lives lost, many without explanation, during the decade of nuclear testing, up to 600km away.
Lawyers running the case say it is “just the tip of the iceberg”. They have heard only from people who are “very confident” they have a case for compensation.
Already, families of some of the stillborn children, hours-old babies and toddlers who account for more than half the plots in Woomera Cemetery for the 1950s and 1960s, have come forward.
Edith Hiskins, 79, of Willaston, gave birth to a stillborn daughter, Helene Michelle, in March 1963, and still is not satisfied with the reason given for her baby’s death.
Mrs Hiskins, and her husband John, a serviceman at Woomera, were told the baby girl was stillborn due to “mild toxemia” – a cause not given until years after her death and only after they pushed authorities for a death certificate.
The parents never saw their daughter , who was buried in the cemetery the next day, and they have never seen her medical records. “I would like some answers as to why that happened, because the answers given on her death certificate, I do not find sufficient,” Mrs Hiskins said.
“As far as I know, her records were sealed. It was years before we even got a death certificate.”
Mrs Hiskins said she, or her family, are likely to join the class action. “There are still questions to be answered and reasons to be given,” she said.
In all, the Woomera Cemetery contains 23 graves for stillborn babies born in the hospital between December 1953 and September 1968, and a further 46 graves for other children who died around that period. Autopsies were not always conducted and it is understood the medical records of those 23 stillborn babies remain sealed and held by the National Archives of Australia.
Now, as British lawyers search for others to join the class action against the British Ministry of Defence, they will also push for the secrets of the Woomera baby graves to be revealed.
Hickman & Rose partners Anna Mazzola and Beth Handley, working with the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement in Adelaide, have collected more than 100 names of people who believe they could join a class action for compensation from the British Government.
They will apply for the records of the Woomera babies to be made public.
Secrecy surrounding the disturbing rate of baby deaths and research suggesting fallout from tests blanketed the town despite being more than 600km from the Maralinga testing sites, warrants those families investigating claims as part of the class act, Ms Mazzola says.
“There are probably about 100 people who have come forward at the moment, but that’s really only the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
“They are primary victims who were there at the time or secondary victims – the children who were either disabled by the contamination or had ailments and disabilities passed on by their parents.”The Hickman & Rose team is working with private injury firm Stacks Goudkamp, which is representing Australian ex-military claimants.
The claims follow the lead of a class action lodged on behalf of British ex-servicemen affected by the tests during the ’50s and ’60s.
The legal team is headed by Cherie Booth, QC – the wife of the former British prime minister Tony Blair.
It lodged the case after British soldiers also affected by radiation exposure were granted permission to sue their government last year.
“It could take years to get a result,” Ms Mazzola warned.
“It’s clearly such a significant case.
“We’re talking about generations of people who have suffered injuries and disabilities as a result of the tests and, for most of them, that’s never been acknowledged.
“It seems the British Government undertook those tests without finding out where people were living and without any real consideration of the consequences, and they need to be held accountable.”