The Canadian Red Cross (search) pleaded guilty Monday to distributing blood tainted with HIV (search) and hepatitis C in the 1980s, and was fined $4,000 in the public health disaster that infected thousands.
More than 1,000 Canadians contracted blood-borne HIV and up to 20,000 others were infected with hepatitis C (search) after receiving the tainted blood products. About 3,000 people had died by 1997 and the death toll has grown, but recent estimates were not available.
"(The) Canadian Red Cross Society is deeply sorry for the injury and death ... for the suffering caused to families and loved ones of those who were harmed," said Dr. Pierre Duplessis, the secretary general of the Red Cross.
In a public apology demanded by survivors of the victims and played via videotape in the courtroom, Duplessis said the charity accepted responsibility for "having distributed harmful products for those that rely on us for their health."
In exchange for the guilty plea and public apology, prosecutors dropped criminal charges against the charity, including criminal negligence and common nuisance.
John Plater, who contracted HIV and hemophilia from the tainted blood, said the plea offered a measure of vindication.
"We (had) thought a terrible mistake had caused the worst public health disaster in this country's history and what we've heard today is: No, in fact, people broke the law," said Plater, who is also Ontario president of the Canadian Hemophilia Society.
In addition to the fine, the charity will set aside $1.2 million for scholarships for family members of those affected as well as a medical research project.
Federal prosecutor John Ayre said the fine was adequate given the Red Cross's status as a humanitarian organization, noting it no longer engages in blood collection or distribution.
The Canadian Red Cross has already paid victims $55 million in a separate fund.
The proceedings Monday were separate from charges against Dr. Roger Perrault, former director of blood transfusion for the Red Cross. He is charged along with three other doctors and the New Jersey-based Armour Pharmaceutical Co. They are accused of criminal negligence and endangering the public for allegedly allowing Armour's blood-clotting product, infected with HIV, to be given to hemophilia patients.
Perrault's lawyer has denied the doctor committed a crime.