Such irony! Just as the British Medical Journal (BMJ) focuses on problems in medical science, including outright fraud, their own scruples are placed under the spotlight with Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s lawsuit against the BMJ, their editor Fiona Godlee, and a reporter they’d supported and even lionized, Brian Deer.
The BMJ accused Dr. Wakefield of great malfeasance and outright fraud in their article series, “Secrets of the MMR Scare”, by Brian Deer published in January 2011. Wakefield has filed a lawsuit in a court of Texas, where he now resides in exile because of Deer’s accusations, resulting in him being stricken from the roles of doctors able to practice in the UK.
The damage done to Dr. Wakefield and his research cannot be underestimated. It shows up in most of the reports on his lawsuit in presumptions that he was guilty of misconduct and research fraud. MedPageToday made false statements
Dr. Godlee has stated, both in the BMJ and in public speeches and interviews, that Dr. Wakefield committed fraud. There was no softening of the terminology. Now, though, Dr. Wakefield is striking back.
The court filing by Dr. Wakefield’s attorneys is remarkably free of legalese and is quite readable. I like to believe that this is indicative of an interest in transparency, rather than the obfuscation so often seen in legal documents. It cites several facts in support of his case, including:
…were and are false and written and published with actual malice and intended to cause damage to Dr. Wakefield’s reputation and work as a researcher, academic and physician and to permanently impair his reputation and livelihood.
Purporting to offer a “re-analysis” of the medical records – many of which Defendants knew were not in the possession of or used by Dr. Wakefield and his colleagues at the time of the publication of the Lancet Paper – for the twelve subject children, Defendants knowingly and with actual malice misrepresented information, data and diagnoses for the purpose of creating the false impression that it was Dr. Wakefield who had manipulated or altered data or diagnoses. Based on Defendants’ purported “reanalysis,” Defendants made and continue to make assertions that Plaintiff Dr. Wakefield committed fraud and is “a fraudster.”
Dr. Wakefield’s case study was “fixed” and based on “bogus data”; Dr. Wakefield’s findings were “manufacturered” to give “the appearance of a link [to] autism”; Dr. Wakefield’s “undisclosed goal” of the project “was to help sue the vaccine’s manufacturers” and that “Wakefield evidenced his [new] ‘syndrome’ for the lawsuit, and built his platform to launch the vaccine scare”; Dr. Wakefield doctored the underlying subjects’ data to reach his conclusion as “[n]o case was free of misreporting or alteration”; The children who were the subjects of the Lancet Paper “were recruited through anti-MMR campaigners, and the study was commissioned and funded for planned litigation”;
And, Deer’s insulting description of those who have watched the witch hunt against Dr. Wakefield with an open mind:
Plaintiff Wakefield, “nevertheless, now apparently self-employed and professionally ruined, remains championed by a sad rump of disciples.”
…shows the extent of Wakefield’s fraud and how it was perpetrated…and how Wakefield altered numerous facts about the patients’ medical histories in order to support his claim of having identified a new syndrome.
Godlee went on to state that it was Wakefield alone who perpetrated this so-called “fraud”:
The BMJ is supposed to be a respected medical journal, focusing on facts and research. Instead, Godlee, Deer and others at the BMJ used the BMJ to launch an unprecedented personal attack on a doctor who was part of a group of well respected physicians that presented a case study that simply suggested that there might be a connection between the combined MMR vaccine, when administered as a combination of live viruses to children, and autism and that suggested further research is warranted.
In summary, the complaint for defamation against Dr. Wakefield specifies both libelous and slanderous commentary on the part of the defendants. It states that they knowingly misrepresented facts with the intention of making false accusations against Dr. Wakefield. These statements were made with malice. The defendants were aware of the falseness of their claims. They intended to cause substantial harm to Dr. Wakefield, to open him up to scorn in his own community, and to damage his livelihood. As a result, Dr. Wakefield has suffered “injury to character and reputation, humiliation, injury to feelings, and loss of earning capacity”.
If only a single claim in Dr. Wakefield’s lawsuit were true, he would be entitled to a favorable judgement. However, as seen in previous Gaia Health assessments of Deer’s claims against Wakefield, the legitimacy of this lawsuit is simply obvious.
Rather than filing his lawsuit in a British court, where the accusations against him took place, and where the laws are generally considered to be strongly on the side of the accuser, rather than the plaintiff, the venue chosen is his new home state of Texas.
This strange choice of venue is raising eyebrows, even in circles supportive of him. However, a bit of thought shows that the choice of venue may be wise.
There is a great deal of truth in the claim British law strongly favors the accuser. In Great Britain, the burden of proof is on the defendant. That is, the defendant—the one accused—must prove his innocence, rather than the plainiff having to prove his guilt. This is the reverse of generally accepted legal practices, in which the burden of proof is on the accuser.
Nonetheless, there’s a catch. British law favors the well-heeled accuser. It costs money, lots and lots of money, to successfully bring a defamation lawsuit in Great Britain. Dr. Wakefield’s income has been destroyed by the attacks on him. He has been struck off the register and can no longer practice as a doctor, which has prompted his move to the US. It’s hard to imagine that he has bottomless pockets. Therefore, his ability to prosecute a defamation lawsuit in Great Britain is severely diminished.
In Britain, a successful defamation prosecution by Wakefield could stand as a precedent that would harm the government itself, as it knowingly purchased the Urabe MMR vaccine that was in effect in the children Wakefield was studying. (See Andrew Wakefield Speaks to Private US Physicians on the Smear Campaign Against Him.) This vaccine was known to cause severe harm, so the manufacturer, SmithKline Beecham, refused to sell it without a waiver of indemnity, which the UK government granted. Therefore, the government itself is on the hook if it’s officially found that there’s a connection between the vaccine and autism. When you consider the number of children involved and the degree of harm done to them, it’s so large that the financial stability of the government would likely be at risk.
Bringing the case outside the UK makes good sense.
Finally, there’s the fact that US court settlements, though generally more difficult to obtain, tend to be significantly higher. If Dr. Wakefield’s case is strong—and it seems to me that it’s exceedingly good—then he certainly doesn’t need the ease of the British defamation laws.
Why wouldn’t Dr. Wakefield choose to utilize the American court system? Anyone who has followed this case with an open mind must be aware that Wakefield’s research was excellent and that the claims against him are false. He has suffered hugely, and the autistic children have been left in the dust.
At this writing, the BMJ says it hasn’t yet received formal notice of the lawsuit. However, their approach appears to be of the philosophy suggesting that the best defense is offense. They imply that there is something suspect in the location of the lawsuit’s filing. The statement continues with:
Despite the findings of the GMC’s Fitness to Practice Panel and his co-authors having publicly retracted the causation interpretation put forward by the Lancet Paper, it would appear from the Claim filed at court that Mr Wakefield still stands by the accuracy of the Lancet paper and his conclusion therein, thereby compounding his previously found misconduct.
While we await formal service, unsurprisingly the BMJ and Mr Deer stand by the material published in the BMJ and their other statements and confirm that they have instructed lawyers to defend the claim vigorously.
The BMJ clearly intends to fight. Of course, they’ve little choice. But the fact is that there was no need to continue to harass Dr. Wakefield, and that the claims of Brian Deer’s article series of January 2011 are inaccurate, as Dr. Wakefield has publicly proven, and as his co-researcher, Dr. Dhillon, the first pathologist to give analyses of the children’s gastrointestinal condtion, has stated.
As Dr. Wakefield has said, it looks like the BMJ and Godlee are “doubling down”. This may prove to be their undoing.
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