A SLAPP Against Clinical Research?

Posts on the Wall Street Journal Health Blog, the Clinical Psychology and Psychiatry Blog, and by Dr Aubrey Blumsohn on the Scientific Misconduct Blog all picked up on a brief story in the Harvard Crimson about a lawsuit apparently claiming that a clinical research article, and a randomized controlled trial no less, was defamatory. Here is the gist from that news article,

Harvard Medical School professor Douglas P. Kiel is facing a lawsuit because of an article he published in the July 2007 issue of the Journal of American Medicine (JAMA).

In the study, Kiel, a gerontologist, said that hip protectors are not effective in preventing injuries among elderly patients, a claim challenged by HipSaver, a popular hip protector manufacturer, in a suit filed in Norfolk Superior Court on Feb. 15.

HipSaver’s president, Edward L. Goodwin, said in an interview that it was scientifically inaccurate for the conclusions of Kiel’s study to be applied to hip protectors in general.

Robert L. Hernandez, who is representing HipSaver, described Kiel’s article as 'disparaging' and 'grandiose.'

Actually, as quoted by Dr Blumsohn, the JAMA article's conclusions were framed in the typically measured terms of clinical research reports.

In summary, this large multicenter clinical trial failed to demonstrate a protective effect of a hip protector on hip fracture incidence in nursing home residents despite high adherence, confirming the growing body of evidence that hip protectors are not effective in nursing home populations.

These results add to the increasing body of evidence that hip protectors, as currently designed, are not effective for preventing hip fracture among nursing home residents.

[See Kiel DP, Magaziner J, Zimmerman S et al. Efficacy of a hip protector to prevent hip fracture in nursing home residents: the HIP PRO randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2007; 298: 413-422. Link here.]

Of course, if these conclusions were libelous, than practically any scientific article could be considered libelous.

Equally obviously, HipSaver leadership have a perfect right to criticize the Kiel article. But to sue the authors because the company disagrees with their conclusions could have a chilling effect on science. This lawsuit seems to be a deliberate effort to intimidate clinical scientists who dared to collect and publish data which suggesting that commercial products may not be as wonderful as their marketers claim.

If clinical scientists start fearing to publish such conclusions, then we can throw the whole of science based medicine out. This, of course, would be a catastrophe.

Furthermore, this lawsuit can be construed as an attack on basic human rights in the US context. In this context, it appears to be a SLAPP, that is, Selective Litigation Against Public Participation. This term was coined to describe lawsuits designed to intimidate people from speaking out about issues of public interest (but in a way that might threaten vested interests.) For more information about SLAPPs, see the SLAPP Resource Center. Also see this article from the First Amendment Center.

Most US states, including Massachusetts, have laws that allow SLAPPs to be countered. For example, in Massachusetts, the law provides (see the SLAPP Resource Center), ]

Any written or oral statement made to, or in connection with, a governmental proceeding is protected under the statute. In addition, any statement that is reasonably likely to encourage review of an issue by the government or enlist public participation is protected under the statute. Other important provisions of the statute include: (1) a special motion to dismiss; (2) an expedited review of the special motion to dismiss; (3) the government may defend or support the defendant in the special motion to dismiss; (4) all discovery is stayed upon the filing of the special motion to dismiss; (5) the burden shifts to the plaintiff to prove the statements were not protected by the statute; and (6) costs and reasonable attorneys’ fees shall be awarded to a victim prevailing on the motion to dismiss.

I don't think it is too much of a stretch to apply the SLAPP concept to a lawsuit aimed at the free discussion of the effectiveness of treatments in health care, given that the government indirectly or directly pays for many of these treatments, and that determining the effectiveness of treatments is clearly a public health policy issue.

I fervently hope HipSavers withdraws this ill-conceived lawsuit. If the company persists, I fervently hoped its attempted SLAPP gets slapped down.

Here is another sorry example of how health care, particularly clinical research, is under seige by those with vested interests and private agendas.