US medical company suing UK doctor for libel folds

Consultant cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst appears to have won his libel tourism battle with an American medical equipment firm after the company went bust.

A press release on the website of Boston-based NMT Medical says the company has entered into an assignment – an alternative under Massachusetts to bankruptcy proceedings – to conclude its operations and “provide for provide for an orderly liquidation of its assets”.

The company, which says it also fired all its staff, was suing Dr Wilmshurst, who works at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, over comments had made at a medical conference in the US. It did not try to take any action over the US-based Heartwire website, which reported the comments.

NMT Medical made a device called Starflex, which was designed to close a type of hole in the heart. Dr Wilmshurst’s comments related to a study of Starflex’s ability to reduce migraines in patients who were diagnosed a suffering from that particular form of hole in the heart.

In November last year a High Court Master ordered NMT Medical to pay GBP200,000 into court as security for Dr Wilmshurst’s costs, and warned that failure to do so meant the case would be struck out, leaving the firm facing a bill for the costs.

Dr Wilmshurst risked losing his home if he lost the case, which he has been fighting since 2007.

He told The Times in November 2009 that if necessary he would turn the case into a freedom of speech test case.

He was prepared to take the case to trial as a victory would set a precedent which would protect other scientists from “legal bullying”, he told the newspaper, adding: “I have got a responsibility to fight this.

There is a fundamental principle of science at stake here. People have to be free to challenge research.”

News of NMT’s closure comes just weeks after Dr Wilmshurst discovered that the company, which had already launched two libel actions over an interview on the chilling effect English libel law was having on medical science which he gave to the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, had started a third defamation case over the same interview.

Dr Wilmshurst said: “I am pleased that it seems that the three defamation cases brought against me by NMT, the most recent one started less than a month ago, may now be over, but I am sorry that the reason is the demise of NMT Medical.

“I am sorry that company employees have lost their jobs.

“I believe that the issues could have been resolved through proper scientific debate, but NMT was determined to use the draconian English libel laws to prevent scientific debate. NMT must have spent an enormous amount of money on the case and, in the light of the company’s present financial problems, I am sure that they might have used the money better.

“This case has cost me all my free time for the last three-and-a-half years. It has also cost me a lot of money to stand up for the right of doctors to raise concerns about clinical research. I am grateful to my lawyers, Mark Lewis and Alastair Wilson QC who have latterly acted for me on a no-win, no-fee conditional fee agreement and for the support from colleagues and the public.

“Now that NMT have gone into liquidation, we are uncertain how much of our money we will get back and there will be no compensate for the enormous amount of time my family and I have wasted in fighting the case.”

Lewis said: “The continual deployment of the libel laws to stop scientific discussion seems to be over.”

Index on Censorship chief executive John Kampfner – the organisation is part of the Libel Reform Campaign – said: “While we are delighted that Dr Wilmshurst’s terrible and vexatious ordeal seems to be over it should be noted this is the result of the claimant’s economic difficulties rather than English libel law working for defendants.”

Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN, which is also part of the reform campaign, said: “Dr Wilmshurst has lost years of his life because a large corporation wanted to silence his criticisms of their products.

The government needs to use their long-awaited draft defamation bill to level the playing field between corporations with huge resources and individuals, often with few.”

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