Appeal overturns link between multiple sclerosis and whiplash

BMJ 1998; 316 doi: (Published 14 March 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;316:797
  1. Bryan Christie
  1. Edinburgh

    A controversial legal ruling that multiple sclerosis can be triggered by whiplash injuries has been overturned on appeal in a case in Scotland that has attracted international attention.

    A former policeman, Nicholas Dingley, was awarded £550000 ($880000) in damages in 1996 after a judge accepted that the onset of his symptoms was related to injuries sustained in a road accident while he was a passenger in a police van (16 November 1996, p 1228). At the time this was seen as an important test case that was expected to lead to further claims for compensation from people who had suffered similar injuries.

    The original case centred on medical evidence, and Mr Dingley's expert witnesses, including Dr Charles Poser from Harvard Medical School, said that there were hundreds of cases in the medical literature where trauma had preceded the onset of symptoms of multiple sclerosis. That view was contested by other specialists, and Professor Alastair Compston of Cambridge University said that it was impossible to tell in individual cases if the onset of symptoms was related to trauma or simply a coincidence.

    The ruling in favour of Mr Dingley was overturned by three judges at the Court of Session in Edinburgh. In a 106 page judgment that examined the medical evidence in detail, Lord Rodger, the head of the appeal court, said: “I am not satisfied that whiplash injury can ever cause the onset of symptomatic multiple sclerosis.” He said that the available evidence seemed to show that Mr Dingley had had multiple sclerosis for some time before the accident and before the symptoms became apparent.

    Lord Rodger said that he had great sympathy for Mr Dingley, who is now confined to a wheelchair, but there was no basis on which to grant compensation for his multiple sclerosis. As a result, the award for damages was cut from £550000 to £1500 to cover the minor injuries he sustained in the accident. Mr Dingley's family is now considering its own appeal, which could take the case to the House of Lords for a final ruling.