The closely watched case tested the boundaries of First Amendment rights vs. reputation.
By ABBY SIMONS
Originally posted January 30, 2013
Dennis Laurion fired off his screed on a few rate-your-doctor websites in April 2010, along with some letters about what he saw as poor bedside manner by his father's neurologist. He expected at most what he calls a "non-apology apology."
"I really thought I'd receive something within a few days along the lines of 'I'm sorry you thought I was rude, that was not my intent' and that would be the end of it," the 66-year-old Duluth retiree said. "I certainly did not expect to be sued."
He was. Dr. David McKee's defamation lawsuit was the beginning of a four-year legal battle that ended Wednesday when the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled the doctor had no legal claim against Laurion because there was no proof that his comments were false or were capable of harming the doctor's reputation.
The unanimous ruling reverses an earlier Appeals Court decision and brings to an end the closely watched case that brought to the forefront a First Amendment debate over the limits of free speech online.
It's a frustrating end for McKee, 51, who said he's spent at least $50,000 in legal fees and another $11,000 to clear his name online after the story went viral, resulting in hundreds more negative postings about him -- likely from people who never met him. He hasn't ruled out a second lawsuit stemming from those posts.
"The financial costs are significant, but money is money and five years from now I won't notice the money I spent on this," he said. "It's been the harm to my reputation through the repeated publicity and the stress."
He said he offered to settle the case at no cost after the Supreme Court hearing. Laurion contends they couldn't agree on the terms of the settlement, and said he not only deleted his initial postings after he was initially served, but had nothing to do with subsequent online statements about McKee.
Opinion vs. reputation
The lawsuit followed the hospitalization of Laurion's father, Kenneth, for a hemorrhagic stroke at St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth. Laurion, his mother and his wife were also in the room when McKee examined the father and made the statements that Laurion interpreted as rude.
After his father was discharged, he wrote the reviews and sent the letters.
On at least two sites, Laurion wrote that McKee said that "44 percent of hemorrhagic strokes die within 30 days. I guess this is the better option," and that "It doesn't matter that the patient's gown did not cover his backside."
Laurion also wrote: "When I mentioned Dr. McKee's name to a friend who is a nurse, she said, 'Dr. McKee is a real tool!'"
McKee sued after he learned of the postings from another patient. A St. Louis County judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying Laurion's statements were either protected opinion, substantially true or too vague to convey a defamatory meaning. The Appeals Court reversed that ruling regarding six of Laurion's statements, reasoning that they were factual assertions and not opinions, that they harmed McKee's reputation and that they could be proven as false.
The Supreme Court disagreed. Writing the opinion, Justice Alan Page noted that McKee acknowledged that the gist of some of the statements were true, even if they were misinterpreted.
Page added that the "tool" statements also didn't pass the test of defaming McKee's character. He dismissed an argument by McKee's attorney, Marshall Tanick, that the "tool" comment was fabricated by Laurion and that the nurse never existed.
Whether it was fabricated or not was irrelevant, the court ruled.
"Referring to someone as 'a real tool' falls into the category of pure opinion because the term 'real tool' cannot be reasonably interpreted as stating a fact and it cannot be proven true or false," Page wrote.
The entire story is here.