McKee V. Laurion: Minor Inaccuracies Of Expression Are Not Defamatory As A Matter Of Minnesota Common Law

FEBRUARY 1, 2013

“Substantially True Statements, Opinions about Person’s Work not Defamatory, Minnesota Supreme Court Rules”

JACKSON LEWIS WORKPLACE RESOURCE CENTER

Providing needed guidance on workplace defamation, the Minnesota Supreme Court has clarified that both “minor inaccuracies of expression” and statements of opinion that cannot be proven true or false are not defamatory as a matter of Minnesota common law. McKee v. Laurion, No. A11-1154 (Jan. 30, 2013). Until now, Minnesota defamation law has been unclear in distinguishing between assertions of fact and opinion, as well as statements that are arguably, technically false but substantially true. Employers often are targets of defamation lawsuits and should be careful when documenting employee performance or reasons for termination in a way that could be considered defamatory.

McKee involved defamation claims by a physician, David McKee, M.D., against Dennis K. Laurion, the son of one of Dr. McKee’s patients. After becoming dissatisfied with Dr. McKee’s bedside manner, Laurion posted the following statements on a number of “rate-your-doctor” websites and sent letters to various medically-affiliated institutions:

  • Dr. McKee said that he had to “spend time finding out if you [Laurion’s father] were transferred or died.”
  • Dr. McKee said, “44% of hemorrhagic strokes die within 30 days. I guess this is the better option.”
  • Dr. McKee said, “You [Laurion’s father] don’t need therapy.”
  • Dr. McKee said that “it doesn’t matter” that the patient’s gown did not cover his backside.
  • Dr. McKee left the room without talking to the patient’s family.
  • A nurse told Laurion that Dr. McKee was a “real tool.”

Dr. McKee claimed the statements were defamation “per se” because they related to his profession. Per se defamation does not require proof that offending statements caused harm to the plaintiff.

Based on the evidence, the Supreme Court determined that several of the statements were “substantially true” and that the common law “overlooks minor inaccuracies and concentrates on substantial truth.” It held that “[m]inor inaccuracies do not amount to falsity so long as the substance, the gist, the sting of the libelous charge is justified.” As for the statement that Dr. McKee was a “real tool,” the Court held, “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.” The Court overturned the decision of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which had allowed the defamation claims regarding the six allegedly defamatory statements to survive summary judgment.

The Supreme Court’s common-sense approach to defamation should be welcome news to Minnesota employers who have enough to worry about when communicating to or about their employees.

FULL ARTICLE

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Web Posting

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Patient Complaint

Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply To Patient Complaint

Plaintiff David McKee’s Cease And Desist Letter To Defendant Dennis Laurion

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Complaint To Minnesota Board Of Medical Practice

Plaintiff David McKee’s Complaint To Sixth Judicial District Duluth Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Response To Minnesota Board Of Medical Practice

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Answer To Plaintiff David McKee’s Complaint

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Motion For Summary Judgment

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Deposition Extracts

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Circumstances Before Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Circumstances After Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony In Response To Questions By Marshall Tanick

Affidavits By Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Parents

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Supplemental Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Motion To Oppose Summary Judgment

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Reply Memo In Support Of Motion For Summary Judgment

Sixth Judicial District Court’s Order On Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Appeal Of Order On Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Minnesota Court Of Appeals Order To Strike Portion Of Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply Brief

Minnesota Court Of Appeals Announces Decision

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Petition For Review By Minnesota Supreme Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Opposition To Review By Minnesota Supreme Court

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Reply Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Minnesota Supreme Court Decision On David McKee MD V. Dennis K. Laurion

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2010

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2011

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2012

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2013

McKee V Laurion Is A Textbook Case

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