JANUARY 30, 2013
“Minnesota High Court Says Online Post Legally Protected”
Steve Karnowski, Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A man’s online post calling a doctor “a real tool” is protected speech, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday. The state’s highest court dismissed a case by Duluth neurologist David McKee, who took offense when a patient’s son posted critical remarks about him on rate-your-doctor websites. Those remarks included a claim that a nurse called the doctor “a real tool,” slang for stupid or foolish.
The decision reversed a Minnesota Court of Appeals decision that would have let the doctor’s lawsuit proceed to trial.
The opinion, written by Justice Alan Page, said the comments posted by Dennis Laurion don’t add up to defamation because they’re opinions that are entitled to free speech protections.
“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. … We conclude that it is an opinion amounting to `mere vituperation and abuse’ or `rhetorical hyperbole’ that cannot be the basis for a defamation action,” the justices said.
The ruling also said it doesn’t matter whether the unnamed nurse actually exists. McKee’s attorney argued that Laurion might have fabricated the nurse, something Laurion’s attorney denied. And it said the doctor’s objections to Laurion’s other comments also failed the required legal tests.
The case highlighted the tension that sometimes develops on ratings sites, such as Yelp and Angie’s List, when the free speech rights of patients clash with the rights of doctors, lawyers and other professionals to protect their good names.
Experts say lawsuits over negative professional reviews are relatively uncommon and rarely succeed, partly because the law favors freedom of speech.
This dispute was over how McKee treated Laurion’s father, who had suffered a stroke, during a single hospital visit in 2010 that lasted 10 to 15 minutes. Laurion expressed his dismay in several online posts with what he considered the doctor’s insensitive manner.
“I’m sure he and his family are very happy with this result,” Laurion’s attorney, John Kelly, said. “It’s been a long and difficult process for them.”
McKee’s lawyer, Marshall Tanick, said he and McKee plan no further appeals and that they were disappointed with the ruling. “We feel it gives individuals undue license to make disparaging and derogatory statements about these people, particularly doctors and other licensed professionals, on the Internet without much recourse,” Tanick said.
While the decision is not binding in other states, Kelly and Tanick agreed that it might influence how other courts would rule on similar questions. Kelly said lawyers often look at rulings from other jurisdictions when they put cases together, sometimes for leads or guidance.
“Certainly this is a cutting edge issue and I’m sure lawyers and courts in other jurisdictions will pay attention to this decision and give it the weight it deserves,” Tanick said.
Chris Mankey: That doctor is a real tool.
Spence: Maybe with online ratings doctors may have to actually show some compassion towards their patients. I realize this does not apply to all but there are plenty of Dr’s that could prescribe themselves some bedside manners.
A Grown-Up: Hey Doc, perhaps you want to give yourself a prescription for a pair of testicles. It may help with that crybaby problem of yours.
Just Saying: No kidding. But ol’ David McKee had to push his luck in cyberworld, a place he has no REAL understanding of. Well guess what ol’ Davie – you just made yourself the tool fool and everybody will now say “wow, ain’t that the doctor without any nads? Hmmm – neurology or no neurology, a man should at least have nads.
McKee V. Laurion: “We feel it gives individuals undue license to make disparaging and derogatory statements about these people, particularly doctors and other licensed professionals, on the Internet without much recourse,” Tanick said.
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
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.”
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.
Content Scraper: In reply to an e-patients.net article “Minnesota Supreme Court sides with patient on social media defamation suit,” Attorney Marilyn Mann said, “I think McKee’s lawyer is incorrect. The case turned on standard principles of defamation law and doesn’t really break new ground.”
Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism, told the Star Tribune that the ruling stems from “an elementary principle of libel law.” She said that this isn’t a blank check for people to make false factual statements. She said, rather, that it’s “an endorsement that statements of opinion are protected under the First Amendment.”
According to the Duluth News Tribune, Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney Mark Anfinson, who watched the oral arguments before the Supreme Court in September, said that the justices made the right decision. Anfinson also told the News Tribune, “What this case really exemplifies is not so much legal precepts in libel law, but the impact of the Internet on the ability to publish unflattering comments about people.”
Anfinson was also interviewed by Minnesota Lawyer. He said, “Anyone who knew about the case, who observed the oral arguments, and who knows something about libel law is about as unsurprised with this result as they can be. It’s about as perfunctory and routine as the Supreme Court ever gets. It was a completely straightforward application of long-settled libel-law rules.”
Anfinson said the case is more significant for social commentary purposes than for its legal analysis, noting that perhaps the justices only accepted the case to fix an error of the Court of Appeals.
Laurion’s attorney, John D. Kelly, said the fact that Laurion’s speech was made online was inconsequential to the ruling, which treated it as a standard defamation case. “It’s almost as if things were said around the water cooler or perhaps posted in a letter to the editor,” he said. “I think the principles they worked with are
applicable to statements made irrespective of the medium.”
Commenting about this case on his own blog, February 8, 2013, Aaron Kelly, internet law & defamation law attorney, said “Thanks to the First Amendment, free speech is the law of that land, and that means being able to communicate our views publicly – no matter how offensive.”
Mark A Fischer of Duane Morris LLP, a full-service law firm with more than 700 attorneys in 24 offices in the United States and internationally, said on February 11, 2013, “For those who are under criticism, one of the practical consequences of bringing a defamation action is that more publicity for the accused statements is almost an inevitable result, whether the statements are ultimately found libelous or not. In other words, in weighing the pros and cons of initiating a lawsuit, all potential defamation and privacy claim plaintiffs should consider the rule of Hippocrates applicable to physicians, ‘First do no harm.’”
In his Technology & Marketing Law Blog, Eric Goldman said on February 4, 2013, “I’ve been tracking doctor v. patient lawsuits for online reviews. . . doctors usually lose or voluntarily drop these lawsuits. Indeed, with surprising frequency, doctors end the lawsuit by writing a check to the defendant for the defendant’s attorneys’ fees where the state has a robust anti-SLAPP law. Doctors and other healthcare professionals thinking of suing over online
reviews, take note: you’re likely to lose in court, so legal proceedings should be an absolute last-resort option–and even then, they might not be worth pursuing.”
Dennis Laurion: Although the Minnesota Supreme Court dismissed David McKee MD vs Dennis Laurion, the 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.
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. Newspaper stories have caused people to call or write me to relate their own medical experiences. I’ve referred them to my lawyers. I’ve also received encouragement from other persons who have been sued over accusations of libel or slander.
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.
I feel that defamation lawsuits are much too easy for wealthy plaintiffs. 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.
Martha Bebinger: Mr Laurion – thanks so much for taking the time to post this account. I appreciate the clarifications and additional details about your experience. I’ve lost track, is the case down at this point?
NYC SKP: This is a good thing. I can’t even begin to imagine the crazy suits that would follow had the decision gone the other way.
Nancy Cawley Jean: There’s quite a bit of difference between true libel and just an opinion, and this is definitely great advice for those in the medical field to follow.
Tribune Reader: It’s puzzling why McKee’s defamation lawsuit — filed nearly four years ago — was still in court. It’s long been established that people may spout any opinion they want without fear of being sued. It’s different from knowingly telling a lie about someone in order to harm their reputation or business. The high court, in throwing out the doctor’s defamation suit, pointed out that you can’t prove if someone is or is not “a tool.” It’s unsettling that the Appeals Court earlier ruled to allow the suit to continue.
Free Speech: The Minneapolis Star Tribune said 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.”
Maitiu Rozinka: Wow, is this doctor an idiot? You want to remove something from the internets, and you take the case all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court? Yeah, cue the Streisand Effect on this one. LOL
Adam Heskin: I get called worse than that all the time on these comment pages and I don’t go crying and filing a lawsuit. What a baby.
Mark Durand Jr: You tool. LOL.
Walt Huemmer: I’ve been called a lot worse from the people who love me. Man, this guy must have the thinnest skin I’ve ever seen.
Joe Merlot: These stuffed coats are arrogant jackasses. Your recourse? Treat people as a peer and with respect even if you do make 5 times what they earn, and you won’t have a problem. I’m sorry that you have to lower yourself to such a level that requires you to be concerned about the feelings of those you feel are below you. The consequence for not doing so is that others will be told of your behavior, and it will impact your business.