UK paediatric surgeon wins libel damages

BMJ 1998; 317 doi: (Published 31 October 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;317:1175
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. BMJ

    A British paediatric surgeon won what his solicitor described as “substantial” libel damages from the Express newspaper last week for a front page story accusing him of cancelling an NHS operation on a 21 month old baby and then offering to do it privately.

    Simon Huddart, clinical director of paediatric surgery at the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff, also collected damages and apologies from other newspapers for the story, which originated in an agency report.

    In a statement read out in the High Court in London the Express newspaper accepted that the front page story headlined “Scandal of baby refused NHS op” was untrue and apologised, seven months after running the story.

    The baby, who had a ventricular peritoneal shunt, had been waiting a year for an operation on a double hernia, which was cancelled at the last minute. The newspaper article alleged that Mr Huddart had told the child's mother that the operation was called off because he was not being paid enough by the NHS, had finished work for the day, and was already on overtime. It claimed that he had said that he would perform the operation immediately on a private basis. The same issue of the newspaper, 13 March of this year, carried an editorial claiming that the hospital had apologised for Mr Huddart's “inappropriate behaviour.”

    The surgeon's solicitor, Martin Soames, told the court: “The newspaper's claim that the operation on this … child had been cancelled at the last minute by Mr Huddart was totally untrue. He was ready and willing to carry out the operation. The operation was cancelled by administrative staff within the hospital and not Mr Huddart. There could never have been any question of this child's operation being undertaken by him privately, whether straight away or at any other time, as this was not a routine hernia operation.” The hospital did not issue an apology about Mr Huddart's conduct but apologised to the parents for the late cancellation, Mr Soames said.

    Mr Huddart told the BMJ that he had gone to apologise to the boy's mother for the cancellation: “She said, ‘I suppose if we went privately, you'd do it straight away.' I said: ‘That's a different system.' She stormed off, saying that her husband was going to the press.” He commented on the distress that the media coverage had caused: “On the day the story broke, I was looking at my reputation, my career completely stuffed.” He was asked to stay off work for a week while the hospital held an inquiry, which completely exonerated him.

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