A GP has been awarded £45,000 in damages from the publishers of the Daily Mail, after the High Court found that his reputation had been unfairly damaged by an article headed ‘a whole year of hell, thanks to a foreign doctor’.
Dr Jose Antonio Serrano of Little Ridge Surgery, St Leonards-on-Sea, Sussex said that an article by Kelvin Mackenzie, the former Sun editor and columnist for the Daily Mail, had led to him resigning from his practice, and eschewing the chance to take over the partnership, which in turn led to patients being removed from his practice list.
Dr Serrano said that the article, published in April 2012, had suggested that he was ‘a particularly shocking example of foreign doctors working in the NHS who, for reasons deriving from their being foreign, are seriously incompetent, inadequate or otherwise unacceptable’.
It followed a consultation between him and a patient, Kevin Jones, in which the patient – a bus driver – had admitted to heavy drinking, which was found to be the cause of gout.
After the consultation, Dr Serrano wrote to inform the driving standards office, the DVLA, about the excessive drinking, and they subsequently revoked Mr Jones’ licence.
Mr Mackenzie suggested that a ‘language barrier’ contributed to Dr Serrano informing the DVLA, who he claimed contacted the agency ‘without any research into any kind of alcohol dependency’.
He quoted Mr Jones as saying: ‘It was a living hell. I could not persuade the DVLA that I was not alcohol dependent, and the only person who could get it revoked was Dr Serrano, who refused to do so.’
Associated Newspapers said that the article was ‘honest comment’ and were based on the account of Mr Jones.
They said that Dr Serrano had ‘wrongly and inappropriately, without due regard for his patient’s, Kevin Jones’s, welfare, rights or feelings, and without doing proper or adequate testing and/or investigations, diagnosed Mr Jones, as being an alcoholic and unfit to drive’ and that the GP had breached confidentiality by informing the DVLA of the consultation.
However, Mr Justice Dingemans found that these were unfair allegations, that Dr Serrano’s conduct ‘was justified in reporting Mr Jones to the DVLA’, and that there were no problems with the GP’s understanding of English language and culture.
He ruled: ‘I find that the article has defamatory meanings which cannot be justified and that the article cannot be defended as honest comment. I award a sum of £45,000 by way of damages.’
As a result of the article, the GP had to resign from the practice after ‘patients had made malicious comments’ and had refused to accept diagnoses around excessive drinking.
The judge ruled: ‘The fact that difficult patients, attempting to get the treatment that they considered their entitlement, had picked up and referred to the article showed that it did have a continuing effect on Dr Serrano’s reputation.
‘In my judgment Dr Serrano’s resignation was part influenced by the article, because it is apparent that he had lost confidence after the publication of the article.’
Dr Serrano told the court that his plan to succeed the practice ‘hadn’t come about because his reputation had been questioned and the confidence patients had in his ability had been shattered. He couldn’t be a figure head in a small community and that a doctor’s good name was fundamental’.
Following his resignation, the senior partner at the practice was forced to remove patients from the patient list, the court heard.
The ruling said: ‘After Dr Serrano’s resignation a notice in the surgery was put up on 18 December 2012… announcing Dr Serrano’s resignation, relating the difficulties in finding a replacement, and notifying that some patients near St Leonards were being asked to move.’