Libel tourism cases stacking up against Peter Wilmshurst

Defendents who take on libel cases are burdened with heavy debt under the current system

In the newest example of UK libel tourism there has been a twist in Peter Wilmshurst’s legal case with US–based NMT Medical: the company has filed yet another defamation suit against him.

The suit was formally served to him two weeks ago (24 March 2011) for an appearance he made on BBC Radio back in 2009 where he explained the details of the first libel suit the company filed against him in 2007. That suit was in response to his speech at a scientific conference in the United States, quoted in a Canadian newspaper, in which he said the company had covered up two studies that were unfavourable to a heart device they were producing, and that the device –  for which he had been previously been the lead researcher – was dangerous.

Although the UK government has been working on a reform to the heavily criticised defamation bill, the recent draft bill has been criticised by some observers for not going far enough – the changes would not protect someone in  Wilmshurst’s situation, they said.

The original 2007 case is ongoing. NMT Medical now claims that by discussing the details of the original case on national radio, Wilmshurst defamed their reputation further.

In a statement, Wilmshurst’s legal representative Mark Lewis considered this latest suit as “a transparent abuse of a system to try and bully Dr Wilmshurst rather than trying to protect a reputation”.

“If they were really concerned about their reputation they would have issued proceedings against Dr Wilmshurst immediately after the radio interview. That they waited a year to start a claim and then served it at the last possible minute shows that the purpose of these proceedings is just a feeble attempt at intimidation and bullying,” Lewis said.

“Rather than issue further proceedings maybe they could try and get on with their initial claims. Dr Wilmshurst was entitled to talk to the BBC about the first case,” he said.

But NMT’s lawyer Robert Barry said in an e-mail to Science magazine that the lengthy delay between the radio show and the commencement of this latest suit “was the result of a series of long unexplained delays by the Defendant, compounded by errors in fixing dates and losing documents.”

Barry also said that the reason the cases against Wilmshurst were being tried in this country, rather than the US, where the company is based and where the initial comments were made, was that the research on the heart device “was conducted entirely in the UK, by UK doctors (of whom Peter Wilmshurst was one), on UK patients, in UK hospitals and overseen by the UK medical regulatory authorities.”

He added that although “NMT may be a US based company … it has a UK subsidiary, UK customers, has a reputation in the UK and sponsors important clinical research in the UK.”

English laws concerning libel and defamation have been criticised for making it easy for large corporations, UK-based or otherwise, to stifle debate regarding scientific or medical practice or research. Mark Lewis claimed NMT’s latest claim was the “sort of abuse of libel proceedings that gives English libel law a bad name.”

Sense About Science, an independent charitable trust, stated their support for Wilmshurst, but warned that his case was one of many.

“We should be very grateful that Peter [Wilmshurst] has been willing to face bankruptcy to defend the importance of open discussions in medicine. But we should be very worried about the many cases where people have no chance of standing up to the threats of organisations with legal and financial muscle and have no choice but to fall silent,” a representative said.

Neither NMT nor Barry have responded to the ABSW’s request for further information on their latest case against Wilmshurst.

This story was published for The Association of British Science Writers

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