Author of hip protector study did not disparage manufacturer, court finds

A Canton manufacturer of padded hip guards failed to prove that a Harvard researcher who published a study in 2007 saying such garments may not protect people from fractures caused the company to lose business, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled Wednesday.

Dr. Douglas Kiel, director of medical research at Hebrew SeniorLife’s Institute for Aging Research, and his colleagues tested padding only one hip to see if nursing home residents were less likely to fracture the protected side, if they took a tumble. But the garment increased the likelihood of serious falls on the padded side, and the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicated that the hip protectors were not effective.

Federal regulators and the journal editors would later determine that the authors knew about the fall risk, possibly due to a change in gait, as the study was underway and did not do enough to warn patients. In October, the journal issued an unprecedented “expression of concern,” indicating that, while editors were concerned about how much the patients were told, they had no evidence of problems with the scientific integrity of the study.

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That review resulted at least in part from a lawsuit filed by HipSaver, Inc., a Canton company that makes padded hip garments. While the company’s products were not used in Kiel’s study, Chief Executive Ed Goodwin alleged that the paper undermined his business because potential customers would assume that the results of the study applied to his products. Goodwin provided regulators with documents he obtained through the lawsuit.

A Norfolk County Superior Court judge determined that HipSaver had not proven that the statements made in the study were false or published with disregard for the truth. The Supreme Judicial Court upheld that decision Wednesday and said the company had not clearly connected any losses to the article.

Hebrew SeniorLife spokeswoman Rachel Joslin Whitehouse said in an e-mail that the ruling protects researchers’ ability to “publish their results in peer-reviewed journals in a free and open manner.”

“Dr. Kiel has devoted his professional career to improving the lives of seniors,” she said. “We look forward to his ongoing research to advance the study of musculoskeletal diseases and falls.”

Goodwin said by phone Wednesday that he was frustrated by the courts’ decision.

“The article was picked up by all the major newspapers,” he said. When potential customers “put the words ‘hip protector’ in the internet, up comes the JAMA study saying that they’re no good, essentially.”