More MS news articles for Mar 2002

Judge criticises expert witness for misrepresenting research findings

BMJ 2002;324:505 ( 2 March )
Clare Dyer legal correspondent, BMJ

A UK judge has strongly criticised an expert witness in a personal injury case, accusing him of misusing the works of others, misrepresenting his critics, and abandoning any claim to objectivity.

Judge John Griffith Williams, recorder of Cardiff, sitting as a High Court judge, said that Peter Behan, emeritus professor of neurology at Glasgow University, "demonstrated a capacity to use his interpretation of the evidence to suit his purposes which conflicts with his duty to the court as an expert witness."

Professor Behan was representing Christine Perry, a former post office worker who alleged that she developed multiple sclerosis as a result of falling over a mailbag at work.

Ms Perryís case is the latest in a run of cases brought by claimants who blame trauma for triggering multiple sclerosis. Whether it can do so in the case of susceptible individuals has long been a subject of medical controversy, but the current majority view is that trauma plays no part.

Judge Griffith Williams accepted the evidence of the Post Officeís expert, Alastair Compston, professor of neurology at Cambridge University, that the injury experienced by Ms Perry was a chance coincidence unrelated to her multiple sclerosis.

In his judgment, the judge said Professor Behan was "guilty of overstating his case, but of greater significance is my conclusion that he has put a gloss on the facts of this case to bring them within the criteria which he contends must be met."

In Professor Behanís report to the court, said the judge, he had misrepresented the conclusions of three papers on the relation between trauma and multiple sclerosis. In one study that said a particular mechanism was "possible," he had changed the word to "probable." He had described the only prospective study ever done as "atrocious," called the work of those who disagreed with him "rubbish" and "verbiage," and branded as "bunkum" Professor Compstonís view that multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease.

The judge said that Professor Behanís own study of 39 cases, in which he said that multiple sclerosis was precipitated or exacerbated by trauma to the cervical cord, had been turned down for publication by medical journals. The patients were not a random sample because they had all been referred for medicolegal reports.

Judge Griffith Williams is not the first judge to criticise Professor Behan. Mr Justice Garland, who presided over a case in 2000 in which a driver, Robert Nixon, alleged he developed multiple sclerosis as a result of an accident in which a standard lamp fell on his car, detailed comments from several judges in a section headed: "Judicial views on Professor Behan as an expert witness."

In 1997, Professor Behan appeared for a farm worker, John Hill, who successfully claimed he had developed chronic fatigue syndrome from exposure to organophosphates. The judge, Mrs Justice Smith, said of Professor Behanís evidence: "Had [he] expressed himself with greater moderation and objectivity and had he not sought to misrepresent the effects of his research, my task would have been a great deal simpler."

Mr Justice Garland said in his Nixon judgment that in the Hill case there was a lengthy argument over costs, "the outcome of which was that Professor Behan should not be remunerated for appearing as an expert witness."

Copyright 2002, BMJ