About 2 months ago Andrew Wakefield filed a defamation lawsuit against the British Medical Journal, Brian Deer and Fiona Godlee for the series of three articles “ The Secrets of the MMR Scare ” and public comments made since. In particular, Mr. Wakefield took issue with statements about his research being fraudulent (and variations on that term like “fraudster”, “bullshit” etc.). Mr. Wakefield claimed that the facts presented by the BMJ articles were incorrect and based on information not available to him at the time he wrote his Lancet article.
Mr. Wakefield chose to file his defamation suit in Texas (his home state). This presented him immediately with two hurdles. First he has to show that the court has jurisdiction over primarily UK entities. Second he faced the possibility of an anti-SLAPP motion. SLAPP stands for “ Strategic lawsuit against public participation “. Per Wikipedia:
A strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) is a lawsuit that is intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.
Many states in the U.S. have enacted anti-SLAPP legislation. Texas enacted a law fairly recently and this motion could be the first major test of that law. I say “could” because of the first hurdle: jurisdiction. As Popehat has already noted , the plaintiffs in the anti-SLAPP motion “specially appear”. I.e. they keep the right to fight on jurisdictional grounds.
As Popehat notes, the motion appears quite strong. As is the case with legal motions, it covers multiple arguments. For example, they not only argue that the statements on their own are permissible speech, but they argue that the statements themselves are accurate.
Here is a section of the table-of-contents for the motion:
V. TEXAS’S NEW ANTI-SLAPP STATUTE APPLIES TO DR. WAKEFIELD’S CLAIMS.
Mr. Wakefield faces a number of burdens to overcome this motion. He must show that the statements made were more damaging that the truth. He must show that the statements are false—not just minor wording differences but that the “gist” of the truth is missing from the statements made. He must show that either he is not a public figure (very difficult for a doctor who has had a publicist for at least 10 years and has certainly put himself into the public sphere). He must show that Brian Deer, Fiona Godlee and the BMJ acted with actual malice.
He must present substantive evidence for each of these before he can go to trial. If he fails, he faces not only payment of reasonable legal fees and costs, but also the possibility of a penalty to deter future frivolous lawsuits. In that regard, the motion puts forth the history of Mr. Wakefield’s previous legal threats and lawsuits.
The most famous instance of Mr. Wakefield’s litigious history is his lawsuit against Brian Deer in 2004. Justice Eady made very clear statements on that:
[Dr. Wakefield] wished to use the existence of libel proceedings for public relations purposes, and to deter critics, while at the same time isolating himself from the ‘downside’ of such litigation, in having to answer a substantial defence of justification.
To put this in perspective—such a statement by the judge in Texas would almost certainly be followed by not only a dismissal of the case, but a financial judgement in favor of Mr. Deer, Ms. Godlee and the BMJ.
The motion makes it clear that Mr. Wakefield has faced negative commentary on his work and his character from many quarters in the past few years. From their introduction:
Two months ago, Dr. Andrew Wakefield was named by Time magazine as one of the “Great Science Frauds” of modern history. Last April, the New York Times described him as “one of the most reviled doctors of his generation.” In 2009, a Special Master presiding over vaccine litigation in the United States Court of Federal Claims recognized that Wakefield’s 1998 paper in The Lancet medical journal, which suggested a possible link between the lifesaving Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (“MMR”) vaccine and the development of autism in children, was considered a “scientific fraud.”
As to specific instances of calling Mr. Wakefield’s work fraudulent, they quote multiple instances of the term being used. As noted above, one of the Special Masters in the Omnibus Autism Proceeding (vaccine court) called the work “scientific fraud”. Probably the most damaging instance for Mr. Wakefield are quotes from his own attorney in the General Medical Council (GMC) hearings who stated that some of the charges, if found proved, would amount to charges of fraud. Those charges were found proved.
There is definitely a movement amongst Mr. Wakefield’s supporters to recast his defamation suit as a retrial of not only his Fitness to Practice hearing before the GMC, but as a legal test of the validity of his MMR/autism hypothesis. Even just within the past couple of days Jenny McCarthy re-emerged in her role as a vocal Wakefield supporter with this (and other) erroneous arguments.
Courts are well aware of attempts for people to use defamation cases as a proxy for fighting other arguments. For example, readers might recall a recent defamation case where Barbara Loe Fisher (of the self-named National Vaccine Information Center) sued Dr. Paul Offit, writer Amy Wallace and Conde Nast publications for two words in an article: “she lies”. In the decision dismissing the defamation suit the judge noted:
Not only does Plaintiff’s claim of the statement’s falsity invite an open ended inquiry into Plaintiff’s veracity, it also threatens to ensnare the Court in the thorny and extremely contentious debate over the perceived risks of certain vaccines….and, at the bottom, which side has the truth on its side. This is hardly the sort of issue which would be subject to verification based on a core of “objective evidence”
Courts have a justifiable reticence about venturing into a thicket of scientific debate, especially in the defamation context
However, one must note that Mr. Wakefield’s defamation suit does not involve the issues of his research conclusions/findings (or non-findings as they have been retracted from the public sphere). The question put forth by Mr. Wakefield was whether statements such as “fraud”, “fraudster”, “determined cheat” are actionable defamation and whether these are based on allegedly misrepresented details from the research—such as diagnoses of the children and when symptoms appeared. Mr. Deer shows in his declaration that the facts presented in the BMJ studies are accurate.
On the “weight of evidence” front, consider this: Mr. Wakefield submitted a 17 page defamation claim. The defendants have responded with a 53 page anti-SLAPP motion and 5 declarations. The declarations include one from Mr. Deer with 101 pages and 104 exhibits. Where Mr. Wakefield is using a neighbor as his attorney, one who is not a specialist in health, media or defamation cases, the BMJ team are using a top Texas law firm and a total of seven attorneys. The lead attorney is listed as having experience with healthcare and publishers:
Tom has a wide range of experience in state and federal appeals and trials. His experience includes commercial, intellectual property, and healthcare litigation, and class actions. He has represented publishers and broadcasters in all aspects of media litigation throughout his career.
the second attorney listed has direct experience on defamation:
Marc’s practice focuses on media and privacy law, class actions, and general commercial litigation. His media law experience includes representing publishers in litigation involving claims for defamation, invasion of privacy, misappropriation, copyright, and related causes of action. In addition, he has defended companies in consumer class actions across the country relating to advertising and digital privacy. He regularly provides advice regarding website terms of service, arbitration agreements, and privacy law.
According to the BMJ’s motion, ” To avoid dismissal, the plaintiff [Mr. Wakefield] must submit “clear and specific evidence” to support each essential element of his claims.”
I suspect that Mr. Wakefield will have a meeting with his attorney very soon to discuss strategy. They are outclassed on the facts of the case, on the manpower and expertise of the attorneys and the credibility of the witnesses. They will discuss “each essential element of his claims” and how they stack up against the evidence presented. One might suspect that Mr. Wakefield’s attorney was unaware of how shaky their position was at the start, getting his facts from Mr. Wakefield. They now know, through hundreds of pages of arguments and evidence, how the defense can answer the “essential claims”.
If they can dismiss before the jurisdiction question is addressed and avoid the anti-SLAPP motion, they might be well advised to do so. The “reasonable costs” the BMJ are incurring are sure to be sizable. And the litigious history of Mr. Wakefield will surely play into a determination of whether to impose penalties on top of those.
From where I sit, Mr. Wakefield just doesn’t have the facts on his side. Nor does he have the law on his side. The jurisdiction question may be a blessing in disguise for Mr. Wakefield: giving him the opportunity to bow out before the anti-SLAPP motion goes into effect.