Wakefield's Libel Suit Against BMJ Thrown Out

Deborah Brauser

August 06, 2012

August 6, 2012 — A judge in Texas has thrown out the libel action suit filed in that state by Andrew Wakefield against the BMJ, the journal's editor-in-chief Fiona Godlee, MD, and journalist Brian Deer, according to a news release from the BMJ.

As reported at the time by Medscape Medical News, Wakefield filed his defamation suit in January 2012 because of a series of articles and accompanying editorials published by the BMJ in 2011. The articles, which were written by Deer, were highly critical of the much-maligned study of Wakefield's that was published in (and later retracted from) the Lancet linking the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine to regressive autism and bowel disease.

Andrew Wakefield

Dr. Godlee cowrote the BMJ's editorial, which called Wakefield's study "an elaborate fraud." Although 10 of the study's 12 coauthors have now disavowed the findings, the study has been blamed for plummeting rates of MMR vaccinations.

British citizen Wakefield chose to file his suit in Texas, where he is currently residing, because the defendants "purposely availed themselves of the privileges, benefits, advantages, and profits of conducting their affairs in the state of Texas."

However, Travis County district judge Amy Clark Meachum announced in her ruling that Texas courts have no jurisdiction over the 3 British defendants.

"We have always had full confidence in what we published in the BMJ. We look forward to putting this litigation behind us," Dr. Godlee said in the news release.

Plans to Appeal

Wakefield's study was published in the Lancet in 1998 amid a huge outpouring of media coverage. It was retracted by the journal in 2010 and described by the Lancet's editor at time of retraction as "utterly false."

Also in 2010, Wakefield's clinical and academic credentials were stripped by the United Kingdom's medical regulatory authority "for serious professional misconduct, including dishonesty and unethical behavior," reports the release.

The BMJ's series of articles and editorials examining all of these issues were published over a 3-week period in January 2011. The journal announced at the time that the articles were fact-checked against the transcript from the UK General Medical Council Fitness to Practice panel hearing.

In the BMJ's first article, Deer reported that the investigators altered and falsified medical records and facts, and that Wakefield accepted consultancy fees from lawyers involved with a suit against vaccine manufacturers.

In the journal's second article, Deer wrote that the study investigators "planned to make a vast profit" from the autism/MMR vaccine scare. And in the third article, the BMJ charged that "the medical establishment buried concerns" about Wakefield's study.

In January of this year, Wakefield filed his suit, saying that the articles were published "with actual malice...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." The filing makes no mention of the Lancet's retraction or the removal of Wakefield's credentials.

At the time, Wakefield said that the Texas Long-Arm Statute would provide jurisdiction for his filing. However, if the suit had gone forward, the BMJ reports that its lawyers would have argued for dismissal "under recent legislation in Texas designed to curb meritless libel lawsuits."

Although the libel action has been thrown out over jurisdiction, the Austin American-Statesman is reporting that Wakefield said he plans to appeal the decision.

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