US firm in Wilmshurst libel has to put up £200,000 costs

The American medical company which is suing a British cardiologist for libel over comments he made about its clinical trials has been ordered to pay £200,000 into the High Court as security for costs.

The order was made on Tuesday by Queen’s Bench judge Master Foster following an application by lawyers for consultant cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst.

He is being sued by US firm NMT Medical over comments he made at a conference in the United States.

The case has been criticised as an example of libel tourism, as NMT Medical has taken no action against an US-based website which reported his comments.

Master Foster held that NMT Medical had to pay the money into court by January 18 next year or its libel claim would be struck out and the court would then decide how much of Wilmshurst’s costs the firm should pay.

Wilmshurst – who could lose his home if he loses the case – has been fighting since 2007 to defend his comments about a clinical trial of a heart device manufactured by NMT Medical.

NMT Medical recently threatened to launch a fresh libel case against him, this time over comments he made about his case in a BBC Radio 4 Today Programme during a piece on the chilling effects of England’s libel laws on scientific and medical discussions.

Wilmshurst’s solicitor Mark Lewis, of law firm Taylor Hampton, said: “The fact is that he should never have been sued in the first place. It is in that context that it is mildly pleasing that we can see the end of the tunnel.

“Either money is put up so that Peter can fight the case or money is not paid and Peter wins by default. What a waste of time and money.”

Wilmshurst said: “During the last three years enormous pressure has been placed on my family and me from time wasted dealing with the case, money laid out for legal costs and interference with my ability to work and other activities.

“I’m concerned my case will have a chilling effect because other scientists and doctors will realise the enormous financial and time costs of speaking out about products and the risk of being sued by manufacturers.”

Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN, which is part of the Libel Reform Campaign, said: “It’s extraordinary that after three years of legal wrangling, this case is still only on the threshold of justice.

“We urgently need a way of resolving libel disputes swiftly and effectively, so that writers and scientists like Dr Wilmshurst can get on with their work.

‘At the moment, Dr Wilmshurst’s only options are to devote his entire life to defending this libel action – or total silence on the subject, which would go against his integrity as a scientist.”

Tracey Brown, managing director of libel reform group Sense About Science, said: “We should be very grateful that Peter 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.”

John Kampfner, chief executive of Index on Censorship, said: “It is not acceptable that because of the inadequacies of English libel law, a scientist faces losing his home, because there is no straightforward public interest defence he can rely on.

“Dr Peter Wilmshurst made his comments at an academic conference, and yet he finds himself sued by a US corporation. We need reform now.”

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