BMJ pays out to doctor over 'child death' story

The British Medical Journal has paid £100,000 in damages under the offer of amends procedure over a story which falsely claimed that a scientist and pioneer in the field of natural health was responsible for the death of a nine-year-old boy in Germany.

The BMJ reported in June last year that Dr Matthias Rath had gone on trial in Hamburg “for fraud” in relation to the death in 2004 of nine-year-old Dominik Feld, who was suffering from bone cancer.

The story suggested that Dr Rath was responsible for the child’s death, particularly that he improperly pressured the parents into refusing to allow hospital doctors to amputate the boy’s infected leg in an effort to save him.

The tragedy of the child’s death sparked an enormous amount of media coverage in Germany.

Solicitors Eversheds, which represented Dr Rath, said the BMJ responded to libel proceedings by acknowledging its mistake and invoking the offer of amends procedure, under which a publisher issues a prompt public apology to the claimant.

A prompt apology usually means that the court gives the publisher a discount of up to 50 per cent on the damages it would otherwise have to pay.

The High Court ordered the BMJ to pay Dr Rath £100,000 in damages.

If the usual 50 per cent discount was applied in the case, the award meets the ceiling of about £200,000 in damages for defamation cases, and is a record in cases using the offer of amends procedure.

The damages were being donated to the Dr Rath Health Foundation, a not-for-profit body which conducts research into science-based natural therapies, Eversheds said.

Norman Chapman, a partner at Eversheds, said: “We are delighted to have secured such an excellent result for Dr Rath. Obtaining record damages has truly vindicated his reputation, which had been subject to an unpleasant and baseless attack by the BMJ.”

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