Effect Measure

The UK has some of the worst libel laws in the world, heavily stacked in favor of those claiming almost any criticism is libel. Perhaps it is a carry over from the days when the upper class brooked no criticism, I don’t know, but I was glad to sign a petition calling for reform of these ridiculous laws. The reason I, as a science blogger, would object are well illustrated by two high profile cases, one involving a science writer, Simon Singh, the other a Danish scientist, Henrik Thomsen. Here is the merest sketch of the Singh case, followed by the Thomsen case, including developments in the Department of Poetic Justice:

Simon Singh, who is embroiled in a legal battle with the British Chiropractic Association, wants 100,000 people to sign up to a libel reform petition. To this end he is calling for everyone who has already signed the petition to persuade someone else to sign up.

He says the UK?s current laws ?gag scientists, bloggers and journalists?. As well as his case, he notes that two medical researchers are being sued over comments they made about certain medical treatments. (Daniel Cressey, The Great Beyond, Nature’s science blog)

Now to the Thomsen case, one of the medical researchers mentioned by Singh (I don’t know who the other one is). Thomsen, a Danish radiologist, was being sued for libel by GEHealthcare because he called attention, when speaking at medical conference in Oxford in 2007, to adverse effects in patients with kidney disease injected with the company’s contrast agent, Omniscan, which contains the paramagnetic metal gadolinium. Paramagnetic materials behave differently in magnetic fields and Omniscan and similar gadolinium containing contrast agents are used to enhance images in magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs). While there are iron containing contrast agents for MRIs, the US FDA has approved them only for certain kinds of imaging (CT-scans often use iodine-containing contrast agents, which are completely different than the ones involved here).

It turns out that in 2006 the Danish Medical Agency recognized a connection between a condition now called nephrogenic systemic fibrosis (NSF), a condition of darkened and hardened skin that makes it difficult or impossible to bend joints. It often starts in the legs but may become generalized and involve the diaphragm, abdominal muscles and pulmonary vessels. It is often progressive and can be fatal (see this FDA webpage for details). Gadolinium contrast agents are produced by chelation which associates large molecules with the gadolinium atoms. This complex is eliminated by the kidney, but if the patients has impaired kidney function (how impaired it has to be seems to be in question), they are at risk for developing NSF after getting an MRI with gadolinium contrast. Since this was a year after the Danish authorities had recognized the connection, it seems that Thomsen’s claim that GEHealthcare was therefore knowingly allowing injection of their product into patients at risk because of renal failure without warning their physicians, was grounds for a libel suit. In the UK a libel suit and cost millions to defend and as noted, the law gives claimants a huge advantage.

Now the story takes a delicious twist. Yesterday Thomsen told The Guardian newspaper he was countersuing for libel, saying GEHealthcare maliciously accused him of being a liar. Suddenly GEHealthcare dropped its claim, saying they had no interest in using libel laws to stifle academic debate.

I’m sure that’s true. Just as sure as I am that I’m one of The Andrew Sisters.


  1. #1 glock
    February 19, 2010

    Forgive my naiveté, but unlike here in the US, doesn’t the plaintiff pay both sides legal costs if unsuccessful ? Plus compensatory or punitive damages for frivolous suits?

  2. #2 rw23
    February 20, 2010


    The loser can indeed end up paying for both sides’ lawyers, and the costs can be hugely disproportionate. There’s also something called a conditional fee agreement (which basically means ‘no win, no fee’) which lawyers offer some clients. The libel laws are so stacked in the plaintiff’s favour that the lawyers can be confident of making money most of the time. There was a recent case where the firm of Carter-Ruck billed the defendant £380,000 after the defendant agreed to a settlement of £15,000 in damages. And that was the bill after only a preliminary hearing rather than a full trial.

  3. #3 Colin
    February 20, 2010

    In England you can usually recoup some of the costs involved when you win the case, but rarely all of them. Ben Goldacre and the Guardian have managed to reclaim about half of their £500,000 from Matthias Rath – I seem to remember Ben saying that the chances of getting the rest back were fairly slim.

    Anyway, an interesting addition to the Simon Singh story is that in one of their press releases the British Chiropractic Association made some comments that would have been easily actionable, but Simon decided not to sue them back because he’s trying to make a deeper point about the stupidity of the English laws.

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