MAY 19, 2001
“Judge Tosses Suit Over Bad Review Of Doctor’s Work”
ON POINT NEWS
A Minnesota judge has boosted free-speech protections for online commentary by finding a neurologist cannot sue a patient’s son over criticisms of his bedside manner that allegedly damaged his professional reputation.
Dennis Laurion posted comments on doctor rating websites in which he vented about how Dr. David McKee of Duluth, Minn., treated his father while performing a neurological examination on him. Kenneth Laurion, 84, was recovering from a stroke at a hospital.
At one point in the examination, Dennis Laurion wrote, McKee said “it doesn’t matter” when someone mentioned that the patient’s gown had come open, exposing his backside.
Courts in California have allowed similar defamation cases to proceed, ruling that free-speech protections only apply to online criticism of medical professionals that “goes beyond a particular interaction between the parties and implicates matters of public concern that can affect many people.” Wong v. Jing, 189 Cal.App.4th 1354 (2010).
But St. Louis County District Court Judge Eric L. Hylden took a refreshingly direct approach in summarily dismissing McKee’s defamation lawsuit. “Taken as a whole, the statements in this case appear to be nothing more or less than one man’s description of shock at the way he and in particular his father were treated by his physician,” he said in a recent decision. He also suggested that Internet postings are as deserving of protection as other forms of speech: In modern society, there needs to be some give and take, some ability for parties to air their differences. Today, those disagreements may take place on various Internet sources. Because the medium has changed, however, does not make statements of this kind any more or less defamatory.
After hearing of the decision, McKee exercised his First Amendment rights by describing Laurion as “a liar and a bully and a coward.” He said he would confer with his attorney before deciding whether to appeal.
Another thin-skinned doctor, Chicago plastic surgeon Jay Pensler, has filed no fewer than three defamation suits against patients who criticized him on Yelp and Citysearch. One of the defendants complained that he gave her “Frankenstein breasts.”
The Laurions had their fateful encounter with Dr. McKee at St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth after Kenneth was moved from intensive care to a standard room. In his online postings, the younger Laurion said McKee was insensitive toward his father, telling him he’d had to “spend time finding out if you were transferred or died.”
He also quoted McKee as saying, “Forty-four percent of hemorrhagic strokes die within 30 days. I guess this is the better option.”
McKee, who sued for more than $50,000 in damages in June 2010, alleged that all of Dennis Laurion’s statements were completely false. But “[l]ooking at the statements as a whole,” Hylden found no “defamatory meaning, but rather a sometimes emotional discussion of the issues.”
In the Wong case, a patient told Yelp readers that they should avoid pediatric dentist Dr. Yvonne Wong “like a disease.” A Chicago judge, meanwhile, refused to dismiss Dr. Pensler’s lawsuit against Elaina Bender, who said he was “a very bad plastic surgeon” who botched her breast surgery.
Admittedly, the criticisms of Wong and Pensler were more harshly-worded than those of Dr. McKee. But courts should follow Hylden’s sensible lead and protect the online expression of opinion about medical professionals.
As Bender said in her motion to dismiss, just as a court “may not bar those who yell in the street that ‘Dr. Pensler is a horrible doctor,’ online reviewers cannot be chained … [P]ublic forum websites such as Yelp.com and Citysearch.com are forums where expression should be encouraged by the courts as a matter of public policy.”