Posted on behalf of Michele Catanzaro.
A Taiwanese court will rule on 4 September in a libel lawsuit filed by a petrochemical company against an environmental engineer whose studies had suggested that a plant operated by the company was causing higher cancer rates in its vicinity.
In December 2010 Ben-Jei Tsuang, an environmental engineer at Taiwan’s National Chung Hsing University in Taichung, presented evidence of increased cancer rates in residents living near a Formosa Plastics Group (FPG) hydrocarbon-processing facility in Mailao, Taiwan, at a scientific meeting. He also presented evidence in a press conference in November 2011.
In April 2012, FPG sued Tsuang for defamation, demanding that he pay US$1.3 million in damages and that he publicly apologize by publishing a statement in four major newspapers.
In the trial, which had its final hearing today at the Taipei District Court, Tsuang’s lawyers framed the case as a “strategic lawsuit against public participation”. An open letter signed by 1,000 academics, including chemistry Nobel laureate Lee Yuan Tseh, expressed support for Tsuang.
“In the six previous hearings, FPG did not produce the emission inventory requested by the court. The judge remarked that this failure could affect the outcome of the case, so I am hopeful,” says Tsuang.
“However, the company has been successful in preventing scientists from speaking up,” he says. For example, he says that Taiwan’s Environmental Agency did not investigate press reports showing alleged evidence of widespread cancer in a village close to an FPG factory.
Whichever side the court’s ruling goes, it might not put an end to Tsuang’s case. Both he and FPG have the option to appeal it.
Several high-profile libel cases involving scientists and science journalists in the United Kingdom over the past few years have led to a campaign that resulted in a reform of UK libel laws (Nature supported the campaign). A bill to update the law was approved in April.