Hastings: Doctor Wins Libel Damages

A doctor accused of putting a patient through a year of "hell'' has been awarded £45,000 libel damages by a High Court judge.

Spanish-born GP Jose Antonio Serrano Garcia, 44, sued over an April 2012 article in the Daily Mail, published under the heading, "A whole year of hell, thanks to a foreign doctor''.

His action was hotly contested by publishers Associated Newspapers, but Mr Justice Dingemans, sitting in London, today ruled in the doctor's favour.

The judge said the article by former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie stated that a patient had been reported by Dr Serrano to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) in respect of alcohol problems when there was no evidence to that effect.

The report to the DVLA followed a consultation between Hastings-based Dr Serrano and bus driver Kevin Jones at the Little Ridge Surgery, St Leonards-on-Sea, Sussex, in January 2011, when Mr Jones went to see about pain from swollen legs.

His bus driving and personal licences were withdrawn by the DVLA, and he lost his job.

The licences were reinstated in early 2012, when a letter from the DVLA stated that "from the information we have received you satisfy the medical standards for safe driving''. Mr Jones, 54, subsequently returned to work as a bus driver.

In April 2012 Mr Jones' father saw an article in the Daily Mail by Mr MacKenzie about foreign doctors working in the NHS, said the judge, adding: "Mr Jones read the article and thought what he considered to be his harsh treatment by Dr Serrano would be something Mr MacKenzie might be interested in.

"Mr Jones said that he thought that his experience was relevant because while Dr Serrano spoke good English it was clear to him that cultural differences, for example about sense of humour and a failure to listen properly, had played a big part in what had happened to him.''

Mr Justice Dingemans said: "In my judgment the main sting of the article is that Dr Serrano reported Mr Jones to the DVLA and it was wrong and inappropriate to do so because: there was no evidence to show persistent abuse of alcohol by Mr Jones; Dr Serrano had, because of the language barrier, misunderstood Mr Jones' reports about his drinking, and because such a report was in breach of patient confidentiality.''

But the judge found that there was "considerable evidence to justify Dr Serrano's actions'', and it was "not wrong and inappropriate for Dr Serrano to write to the DVLA''. There had not been a language barrier.

He said: "In my judgment Dr Serrano was not told at the consultation that Mr Jones might have a pint or two after work, and a couple of spirits if he went out with his wife at weekends.

"Dr Serrano was told that Mr Jones would drink half a bottle of Bacardi at night on some nights. Dr Serrano had not misunderstood that Mr Jones drank that amount every night, and his contemporaneous notes show that. There was no language barrier. Dr Serrano had not refused to listen to Mr Jones.''

He ruled that the article had defamatory meanings which "cannot be justified'', and that it "cannot be defended as honest comment''.

Dr Serrano, who came to England in 1995 and became a partner at Roebuck House Surgery in Hastings in 2006, was "deeply upset'' when he read the article, said the judge.

He added: "Dr Serrano said his wife was upset by the article and he had been upset and ashamed by the anxiety and distress that she had been caused and that it was particularly hurtful and insulting to be attacked on the basis that he was a foreigner with an inadequate grasp of English when he'd been given no indication that any criticism of that kind was going to be made.''

In a statement after the ruling, Dr Serrano said: "I am extremely pleased with the outcome of today's hearing. This article was irresponsible and should never have been written.

"As a family doctor I have always worked hard to provide the best treatment for my patients and local community.

"After a legal process that lasted two and a half years, I am now able to dedicate the rest of my time to my family and my profession.''

His lawyer Daniel Taylor, of Taylor Hampton solicitors, said afterwards: "The right to a reputation is a vital human right, every bit as important as freedom of speech and a free press.

"It is right that doctors or indeed any other dedicated professional should know that where they have been subject to untrue and unjustified allegations by a tabloid or any other publication, the law is there to protect them.''