'Scapegoat' surgeon wins pounds 625,000 libel damages

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Home Affairs Correspondent

A consultant who claimed Virginia Bottomley made him a scapegoat for a man's death, yesterday won pounds 625,000 in libel damages over a series of newspaper articles which wrongly branded him "Doctor Dolittle".

Anthony Percy, consultant orthopaedic surgeon at Queen Mary's Hospital, Sidcup, Kent, claimed he was "framed and set up" to deflect attention from NHS cuts. He was used by those in authority at the NHS as a "political football" after the death of Malcolm Murray - a 45-year-old man who died of brain injuries after being flown 200 miles to Leeds because no bed could be found for him in the South East.

Mr Percy claimed that articles, published last March and April in the Daily Mirror, suggested he was guilty of gross dereliction of duty and should be suspended over the death.

The award - the fourth highest ever awarded - comes just two months after a landmark Court of Appeal ruling was supposed to have steered libel juries away from huge awards.

In that case, also involving titles belonging to the Mirror Group, Sir Thomas Bingham, the Master of the Rolls, reduced the rock star Elton John's libel damages from pounds 350,000 to pounds 75,000 and said: "It is, in our view, offensive to public opinion, and rightly so, that a defamation plaintiff should recover damages for injury to reputation greater, perhaps by a significant factor, than if that same plaintiff had been rendered a helpless cripple or an insensate vegetable."

Only two weeks ago, the Government unveiled two new Bills designed to dramatically cut the number of libel trials and to limit damages.

Yesterday Mirror Group, which had denied libel, was granted a stay on payment of all but pounds 50,000 of the award, pending an appeal on both liability and the scale of damages. The Daily Mirror had claimed its story was a fair and accurate account of a South Thames Regional Health Authority report, which criticised Mr Percy for giving advice to a junior doctor involved in Mr Murray's case by phone from his home, rather than going into the hospital.

Outside court, Charles Collier-Wright, legal manager of the Mirror Group, said he was "extremely disturbed" by the "completely absurd" verdict. "This is another blow to the jury system in libel actions," he added.

After the hearing, Mr Percy spoke of his relief at surviving the "terrible ordeal" and called for the Government to take action over the shortage of neuro-surgical beds, especially in the London area. "The purpose of bringing this case was to clear my name and restore my good reputation as a man and a caring doctor and surgeon," said Mr Percy.

His counsel, Charles Gray QC, had alleged that Mrs Bottomley had, in a memo, called for Mr Percy's role to be "flagged up" after she learnt that he was to be censured.

But subpoenaed by the newspaper to give evidence, Mrs Bottomley, now Secretary of State for National Heritage, dismissed the charge that she had made Mr Percy a "sacrificial lamb" as "complete nonsense".