May 5, 2014
“Doc’s Defamation Lawsuit: The Patient’s Side”
PHYSICIANS WEEKLY, Guest Post by Skeptical SCALPEL
Are you familiar with a case in Minnesota where a doctor sued a patient’s son for defamation over a negative review he posted? Dr. David McKee’s defamation lawsuit, a 4-year legal battle ended up in the Minnesota Supreme Court. The story recently came up again because BuzzFeed posted an article entitled “Insult And Injury: How Doctors Are Losing The War Against Trolls,” discussing how doctors are having trouble defending themselves against negative reviews.
- David McKee, M.D., a Duluth, Minn., neurologist, was unaware of the Streisand phenomenon at the time he decided to sue Dennis Laurion. Laurion’s father, Kenneth, had suffered a stroke in April 2010; McKee was called in to assess Kenneth’s condition.
- According to the Laurions, McKee was oblivious to Kenneth’s modesty. “His son was right there,” McKee counters. “If he was concerned about the gown, he didn’t get out of his chair to tie it.”
- Dennis Laurion consulted with his family to see if his impression of the arrogant doctor was real or imagined. He fired off a dozen or more letters to a variety of medical institutions, including the hospital’s ombudsman, the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice, Medicare, and the American Medical Association.
- McKee sued Laurion for defamation. A local Duluth newspaper picked up on the story, favoring Laurion’s interpretation of events.
- In April 2011, the judge granted Laurion’s motion for summary judgment, ruling his comments were protected free speech. A user on Reddit.com posted the newspaper story. Almost overnight, dozens of “reviews” popped up on RateMDs.com and other sites with outlandish commentary on McKee, who was referred to as “the dickface doctor of Duluth.”
- McKee found no easy way to exit the situation. “You get drawn in,” he says, suggesting his lawyer nudged him into further action. “It’s throwing good money after bad. … I wanted out almost as soon as I got in, and it was always, ‘Well, just one more step.’” McKee appealed, and the summary judgment was overturned. The case, and the measurable impact of being labeled a “real tool,” was now headed for the Minnesota Supreme Court.
- McKee was rated for several years as a top provider in Duluth Superior Magazine, but “From now until the end of time, I’ll be the jerk neurologist who was rude to a World War II veteran,” the physician says. “I’m stuck with it forever.”
I tweeted a link to that article, and Dennis K. Laurion, whose father was the patient in the Minnesota, case wrote to me. He says no one ever asks him about his side of the story. He’s agreed to let me publish his comments:
- As one of the “trolls” detailed in the article, I have no issue with the accuracy of the text—at least as it pertains to me—but the tone of the title fails to distinguish sincere complaints about bedside manner from attacks on mental stability, attacks on medical prowess, fake websites, allegations of dangerous injections, and use of multiple identities. The author said “McKee [the doctor in the case] and Laurion agree on substance…”
- From the American Health Lawyers Association: In this case, the court found the six allegedly defamatory statements were not actionable because the “substance, the gist, the sting” of plaintiff’s version for each of the statements as provided in deposition and defendant’s version essentially carried the same meaning, satisfied the standard for substantial truth, did not show a tendency to harm the plaintiff’s reputation and lower his estimation in the community, or were incapable of conveying a defamatory meaning (e.g., when a nurse told defendant that plaintiff was “a real tool”) based on “how an ordinary person understands the language used in the light of surrounding circumstances.”
- From the Business Insurance Blog: The Minnesota high court said, for instance, that Dr. McKee’s version of his comment about the intensive care unit was substantially similar to Mr. Laurion’s. “In other words, Dr. McKee’s account of what he said would produce the same effect on the mind of the reader,” the court said. “The minor inaccuracies of expression (in the statement) as compared to Dr. McKee’s version of what he said do not give rise to a genuine issue as to falsity.”
- From the Duane Morris Media Blog: The doctor said in his deposition that with regard to finding out if Mr. Laurion was alive or dead, “I made a jocular comment… to the effect of I had looked for [Kenneth Laurion] up there in the intensive care unit and was glad to find that, when he wasn’t there, that he had been moved to a regular hospital bed, because you only go one of two ways when you leave the intensive care unit; you either have improved to the point where you’re someplace like this or you leave because you’ve died.” The court said the differences between the two versions of the statements about death or transfer by both plaintiff and defendant were so minor that there was no falsity in the website postings. In other words, the court indicated that the allegation about the statement was true.
- This entire experience has been distressing to my family. We were initially shocked and blindsided by “jocular” comments made so soon after my father’s stroke by somebody who didn’t know us. We were overwhelmed by my being sued after posting a consumer opinion, and we were shocked by the rapidity with which it happened. It has been the 800 pound gorilla in the room. My parents would be 88-year-old witnesses. My mother and wife prefer no discussion, because they don’t want to think about it. Conversation with my father only reminds him of his anger over this situation. My siblings and children don’t often bring it up, because they don’t know how to say anything helpful. I have been demoralized by three years of being called “Defendant Laurion” in public documents.
- While being sued for defamation, I have been called a passive aggressive, an oddball, a liar, a coward, a bully, a malicious person, and a zealot family member. I’ve been said to have run a cottage industry vendetta, posting 108 adverse Internet postings in person or through proxies. That’s not correct. In reality, I posted ratings at three consumer rating sites, deleted them, and never rewrote them again.
- What it’s like for a patient or family member to be caught up in a case like this was already described by the plaintiff’s lawyer in a Star Tribune newspaper article, “Company sues over info put on Yahoo message board,” August 27, 2001, and repeated here. It said in part: “If a company sues, alleging simple business disparagement or perhaps defamation, its goal isn’t necessarily to win,” said Marshall Tanick, a First Amendment expert at Mansfield & Tanick in Minneapolis. “The strategy is to force the other person to incur huge legal expenses that will deter them and others from making such statements…yet very few [cases] go all the way to trial and verdict.”
- 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.
- After receipt of a threat letter, I deleted my Rate-Your-Doctor site postings and sent confirmation emails to opposing counsel. Since May of 2010, postings on the Internet by others include newspaper accounts of the lawsuit; readers’ remarks about the newspaper accounts; and blog opinion pieces written by doctors, lawyers, public relations professionals, patient advocates, and information technology experts. Dozens of websites by doctors, lawyers, patient advocates, medical students, law schools, consumer advocates, and free speech monitors posted opinions that a doctor or plumber shouldn’t sue the family of a customer for a bad rating. These authors never said they saw my deleted ratings—only the news coverage.
- It was not my intention to use any descriptions or conclusions. It was also not my intention to claim that I had proof. Only my family and the doctor were in the room. My intention was to portray my recollection of what happened in my father’s room. The public could decide what to believe and what, if any, impact it had on them: insensitive doctor or overly-sensitive consumer?
- Medical peer newsletters or magazines that interviewed the plaintiff did not approach me. Websites maintained by doctors for doctors or lawyers for lawyers often caused an inference that I was a zealot family member or somebody who had asked about my dad’s chances and then shot the messenger. Generally, however, those websites echoed other websites in advising public relations responses other than a lawsuit for fear of creating the “Streisand Effect.” As a retired layman, I brought far less resources to the battle of financial attrition.
- 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. I did not want to merely post my conclusions. I wanted to stick to my recollection of what I’d heard. 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. The plaintiff must prove the facts are willfully misstated, but the defendant can go broke while waiting through the effort.
Correspondence of Skeptical Scalpel and Dennis K. Laurion:
[ Skeptical Scalpel ] I very much appreciate your email and the clarification of your situation. I hope you realize that I personally took no side in the dispute you had with Dr. McKee. While spending nearly 24 years as a surgical chairman, I learned that there are always two sides to every story.
[ Laurion ] Thanks, Doctor, for the courtesy of your reply. I do, in fact, realize that you just tweeted the existence of the article.
[ Skeptical Scalpel ] I agree that most of the stories about your case tended to sympathize with the doctor and that his defamation suit brought far more attention to him and his behavior than if he had simply let it go. I have some questions. Is the litigation completely over?
[ Laurion ] Yes. For a while, the plaintiff threatened, mostly in settlement demands, to sue me for 500+ remarks made on Reddit.com. His “proof” was that most of the remarks came from Duluth, and I live in Duluth. (He also lives and works in Duluth.) He threatened to subpoena IP numbers and sue every poster, presumably all my relatives and friends, if I didn’t settle. I hadn’t posted to Reddit, I don’t know anybody who did, and nobody ever asked my ISP for my IP number or browsing history. The statute of limitations has now passed.
[ Skeptical Scalpel ] If so, did you win the case?
[ Laurion ] I won dismissal with prejudice from the Minnesota Supreme Court; he won the right to make me spend $56K I didn’t have. Minnesota allows “hip pocket lawsuits.” The plaintiff served me but didn’t file in court. He almost immediately asked my insurance company for a settlement, apology, and confidentiality agreement. This lawsuit was apparently supposed to last 3 weeks and never be filed in court; however, my insurance company doesn’t offer me defamation coverage, and, rather than reply only to the plaintiff, I filed my reply through the court, putting the suit into public record and the attention of newspapers.
[ Skeptical Scalpel ] Do you have any recourse as far as say, counter-suing Dr. McKee?
[ Laurion ] No. In Minnesota, each party is responsible for their own legal fees. Dr. McKee had to reimburse me about $2000 of filing fees and printing costs. I’d have contemplated a suit for abuse of process, but the Appellate Court’s decision not to dismiss tended to dilute my complaint.
[ Skeptical Scalpel ] Are you familiar with strategic lawsuit against public participation(SLAPP) lawsuits? If I recall correctly, your case took place in Minnesota which has an anti-SLAPP law.
[ Laurion ] I wanted my lawyer to file a SLAPP motion, but Minnesota SLAPP law only applies to actions that are wholly or in part government petitions. The plaintiff’s lawyer only charged me for my internet rating site reviews and my letter to the hospital. The complaint avoided any mention of my letter to the Medicare Ombudsman, the County Health Department, or the Minnesota Board of Medical Review; however, my comments to those sources were quoted in briefs and newspaper comments.
[ Skeptical Scalpel ] May I ask how you discovered that I had tweeted a link to the BuzzFeed article?
[ Laurion ] I searched the opening sentence of the article. The search revealed blogs that copied the article, but it also reviewed Facebook postings and tweets.
[ Skeptical Scalpel ] Finally, do you have any interest in my publishing your email to me on my blog? I think it would be of value for people to hear your side of the story.
[ Laurion ] Yes, I appreciate your offer. You may also quote my answers to your questions, if you wish.
Skeptical Scalpel is a retired surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and critical care and has re-certified in both several times. He blogs at SkepticalScalpel.blogspot.com and tweets as @SkepticScalpel. His blog averages 1400 page views per day, and he has over 9100 followers on Twitter.