Surgeon’s marathon defamation trial against Herald, The Age begins

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High-profile surgeon Dr Munjed Al Muderis had an “unparalleled” good reputation in Australia before he was defamed by Nine newspapers and 60 Minutes, his barrister has said on the first day of his marathon defamation trial against the media outlets.

Al Muderis launched Federal Court defamation proceedings last year over reports in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and 60 Minutes in September 2022. He says the reports convey a range of defamatory meanings including that he negligently performed osseointegration surgery.

Surgeon Munjed Al Muderis, centre, outside the Federal Court in Sydney on Monday, and his barrister Sue Chrysanthou, SC, right.Credit: Steven Siewert

The surgery involves inserting titanium pins into the residual bone of an amputee, which allows prosthetic limbs to be connected.

Al Muderis’ barrister, Sue Chrysanthou, SC, told the court her client was “the world’s expert on osseointegration surgery” and he “often carries out procedures free of charge and provides the devices free of charge” overseas, including operating on blast victims in Ukraine.

The trial is expected to run for 12 weeks, including a six-week tranche of hearings from Monday and a further six weeks from March 4 next year. Nine is seeking to rely on a range of defences, including a new public interest defence, truth and honest opinion.

Chrysanthou said there was no dispute that before the reports Al Muderis, NSW’s Australian of the Year in 2020, was “a doctor, a surgeon, an academic, an inventor, known to be of the greatest integrity, known to be unwavering in his dedication to helping patients”.

“His reputation prior to the publication of these disgraceful articles and videos was unparalleled insofar as the medical community in Australia was concerned,” Chrysanthou said.

“We say, and as is evident from the many, many people here today supporting him, that that was a deserved reputation.”

Chrysanthou alleged there was evidence Nine had engaged in a “malignant, dishonest and malicious campaign” against her client. She said the effect of the reports, which she described as a “multimedia attack”, was to mislead people who could benefit from his surgery.

“There’s language used which is effective from a literary perspective to evoke a reaction in the reader of disgust and horror, like the word ‘botched’, like describing my client as ‘celebrity surgeon’, so not ‘the competent, excellent, talented surgeon’,” Chrysanthou said.

The court heard Nine alleged Al Muderis ignored a video from a patient, Mark Urquhart, showing maggots in his leg.

But Chrysanthou said Urquhart “didn’t send [the video] … straight away, he sent it six weeks later, and he got a response that day from Claudia [Roberts], my client’s partner and practice manager”.

“Mr Urquhart’s response on 2 December [2019], the day he sent the video and the day he got a response, was ‘let’s leave it until after Christmas’,” Chrysanthou said.

She said Al Muderis provided Urquhart with a document in May 2018 entitled “maggot protocol” after Urquhart complained of an earlier incident in April 2018.

Chrysanthou said Urquhart was informed of the risks of the surgery and had said that he would go ahead even if he only had a 1 per cent chance of walking again.

She said Urquhart told Al Muderis’ partner and practice manager in late 2018 about some of his complications before he added: “People ask me if I regret this. I just [laugh] and say how could I? I didn’t walk for 10 years and Munjed’s a hero in my book.”

Chrysanthou said: “This is a patient who is coping with inevitable complications of this sort of major surgery and is doing so in exchange for being able to walk, which is what he wanted.”

Al Muderis is seeking an injunction to restrain Nine from continuing to publish the reports online, general and aggravated damages, plus special damages for economic loss.

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