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Sunday, February 3, 2013

High court rules online posts didn't defame doctor

The closely watched case tested the boundaries of First Amendment rights vs. reputation.

By ABBY SIMONS
Star Tribune
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.


1 comment:

Dennis said...

"The financial costs are significant, but money is money and five years from now I won't notice the money I spent on this,"

The plaintiff’s first contact with me was a letter that said in part that he had the means and motivation to pursue me. The financial impact of being sued three years to date has been burdensome, a game of financial attrition that I haven’t wanted to play. The suit cost me the equivalent of two year’s net income - the same as 48 of my car payments plus 48 of my house payments. My family members had to dip into retirement funds to help me.

I’ve learned that laws about slander and libel do not conform to one’s expectations. I’ve read that online complaints are safe "if you stick to the facts." That’s exactly the wrong advice at least in Minnesota. I did not want to merely post my conclusions. I wanted to stick to my recollection of what I’d heard and let people make their own conclusions. I don’t like to read generalities like "I’m upset. He did not treat my father well. He was insensitive. He didn’t spend enough time in my opinion.”

However, such generalities are excused as opinion, hyperbole, or angry utterances. If one purports to say what happened, factual recitations can be litigated to determine if they're true or false. The plaintiff must prove the facts are willfully misstated, but the defendant can go broke while waiting through the effort.

I feel that defamation lawsuits are much too easy for plaintiffs who can say " . . five years from now I won't notice the money I spent on this." If I were to attempt suing a doctor for malpractice, my case would not proceed until I'd obtained an affidavit from another doctor, declaring that the defendant’s actions did not conform to established procedures.

In a defamation suit, there's generally no exit short of a judge's dismissal order - which can be appealed by the plaintiff.

Being called "defendant" is terribly personal, but the civil suit path is totally impersonal. During the three years that I went through depositions, interrogatories, a dismissal hearing, an appellate hearing, and a state Supreme Court hearing; I never once spoke to a judge. At depositions, the plaintiff and I sat opposite each other, while I answered his lawyer's questions, and he answered my lawyer 's questions. We were not to speak to each other.

Minnesota and two other states allow "hip pocket" lawsuits. The plaintiff can start a suit by sending the summons and complaint to the defendant without filing the documents in court. The plaintiff enjoys complete anonymity from public awareness. The defendant has 20 days to respond, but the court is unaware that the suit exists. The plaintiff can conduct interrogatories and depositions while the court is unaware that the suit exists. The plaintiff can send settlement demands to the defendant 's insurance company while the court is unaware that the suit exists. Until the suit is actually filed, the plaintiff’s lawyer orchestrates everything as the officer of the court. If the defendant files his answer, in order to publicly get onto the docket and under the supervision of a judge, the defendant pays the filing fee. In Minnesota, if the plaintiff loses his effort at rule by law, the rule of law generally allows the defendant no remuneration. The plaintiff can lose the suit while winning the battle of financial attrition.