Northern Ireland's libel laws must be brought into line, says the cardiologist sued three times for telling truth about dangerous heart equipment
A leading British cardiologist who was sued after raising concerns over faulty medical equipment which was killing people has called for reform of Northern Ireland's libel laws to prevent similar whistleblowers facing legal action in Belfast.
Peter Wilmshurst was sued three times over comments he made about a device used to close holes in the heart.
The device, made by a US company, didn't seal the holes properly and fell out of position, in some cases lying in people's hearts or being carried by their circulation system – a potentially lethal scenario.
Yet Dr Wilmshurst said he was left facing financial ruin after a trio of legal actions against him.
He was speaking at an event organised by the Libel Reform Campaign in Belfast yesterday.
The discussion forum drew together people who support reform of our decades-old libel laws.
The Defamation Act 2013 introduces a new "serious harm threshold" designed to help people understand when claims should be brought and discourage the wasting of court time.
However, it does not apply here because Stormont blocked its extension.
Yesterday's event heard compelling arguments as to why the legislation should be introduced to Northern Ireland, including warnings that failure to do so could breach European law.
It also heard first-hand from Dr Wilmshurst about his experience of the UK's outdated libel law, which the Defamation Act has now wiped out in England and Wales.
Boston-based NMT Medical sued Dr Wilmshurst after he criticised its research at a US cardiology conference in 2007.
He claimed the device – on which he had been the lead researcher – was dangerous and that NMT Medical covered up unfavourable reviews. The action was launched in London, where the comments were reported, under the UK's softer libel laws.
A second action was taken when the article was amended.
Dr Wilmshurst was sued a third time when he spoke on BBC radio about being sued for libel.
"My concerns about the device proved justified," he said. "The devices made by this company continued to be put into patients, some of whom needed emergency surgery, while some died because the device perforated their hearts."
Dr Wilmshurst incurred legal costs of £300,000, which could have risen to £3.5m had the case reached a full trial. However, NMT Medical later went into liquidation and Dr Wilmshurst managed to retrieve £200,000 towards his costs.
Under the Defamation Act, it would have been more difficult to sue Dr Wilmshurst in London, with NMT Medical having to show it was seriously harmed. Dr Wilmshurst would also have had a public interest defence, making it easier to strike out an action earlier.
However, as things stand a similar case could still be brought in Belfast – because Northern Ireland hasn't brought its libel laws into line with England and Wales.
"I've been very keen to support libel reform and I'm very keen that people know that the amendments would have made it much more difficult for the company to sue me in England, maybe not in Northern Ireland," he said.
Belfast Telegraph editor Mike Gilson, who was present at the event, said legal threats were greater here than any other part of the UK.
"I've edited in all four parts of the UK and this – the letters, the chill effect – is by far the greatest in the UK," he said.
Although Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt began a Private Member's Bill on the issue, it was put on hold after Finance Minister Simon Hamilton referred the issue to the Law Commission. Mr Gilson voiced concerns the issue could be kicked into the long grass or "cherry-picked", with just "bits and pieces" of the Act introduced here.
Brian Garrett, a senior legal consultant, warned that failing to extend the Act could be a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
He warned that someone from Northern Ireland could go to the European Court claiming they had been discriminated against because the extra protection which the Defamation Act brings does not apply here.