Heart doc Wilmshurst wins libel battle by default

Three libel cases brought against an NHS cardiologist because he spoke out over the safety of a medical procedure have been discontinued.

US-based NMT Medical announced in April that it was ceasing operations and selling off its assets. Now its three cases against Wilmshurst have been formally stopped.

The Wilmshurst libel battle dates back to 2007 when he was sued by NMT over comments he made to a US journalist about the safety of the Starflex device used to treat holes in the heart.

Even though Wimshurst was stating his expert opinion on a matter of public interest, and even though his comments were published in the USA, he has faced a lengthy legal battle fought via London's High Court.

In December 2010, Wilmshurst told Press Gazette that fighting the case had taken up every moment of his free time and cost him over £100,000 of his own money.

He said: 'I'm in the difficult position of being a doctor and not being able to say I was wrong about this because I was right. If I retract and say that what I said wasn't true it puts patients lives at risk."

Campaigners are hopeful that the Coalition Government's proposed defamation bill will tackle the issues raised by the Wilmshurst case, specifically libel tourism and the issue of scientists and doctors being sued for voicing their opinions on matters of public interest.

Science writer and libel campaigner Simon Singh said yesterday in a statement: 'England's expensive and anti-free speech laws essentially gagged Dr Wilmshurst from speaking out for three years. It is great news that Peter has now won his case and he can get back to his career and his family.

"The bad news is that England's current libel laws will continue to discourage scientists, journalists, journals and newspapers from speaking out on matters of serious public interest. Only the most tenacious and bloody-minded of doctors would dare to speak out while our laws are so antagonistic towards libel defendants.

"Even more worrying, the Government's current draft defamation bill is not radical enough to change the situation. I hope Peter's miserable experience serves as a reminder to the Ministry of Justice that we need a libel law that acts in the public interest."

Solicitor Mark Lewis, who represented Wilmshurst on a no win, no fee deal said: 'At the start of the case, NMT was solvent, it ended because it ran out of money. Libel is about reputations not about scientific challenges. The lesson to be learnt is that companies shouldn't sue about scientific debates"

Dr Evan Harris of the Libel Reform Campaign said: "The key message from this saga is that despite a brave stance from resolute scientist, libel suits can close down debate on matters of vital public interest for years.

"This is why proper libel reform must mean no right of companies to sue without showing malice and actual loss, an effective public interest defence, a rule that prevents claimants suing in London when the vast majority of the offending publication is elsewhere, and the ability of scientists to freely debate the peer reviewed scientific literature."

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