JANUARY 30, 2013
“Court Rejects Case Of Doctor Who Sued Over ‘Real Tool’ Remark”
Ben Grove, Bring Me The News
The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday threw out the case of a Duluth doctor who sued after a patient’s son called him “a real tool” on a rate-your-doctor website.
In the court ruling, the justices noted that there was no proof that six comments made by the son were false or harmful to the neurologist’s reputation. The unanimous opinion reversed an earlier Appeals Court decision and effectively rejects the lawsuit of Dr. David McKee, who had been in a two-year legal battle with Dennis Laurion. McKee had alleged defamation and claimed the comments interfered with his business.
Observers said the case presented an interesting battle between free speech rights and the rights of workers to protect their professional reputations.
Laurion had been upset with McKee’s bedside manner as he was treating his father after a hemorrhagic stroke in April 2010. Among the comments that Laurion posted to an online doctor review site was the assertion by a nurse friend of his that “Dr. McKee is a real tool!”
The court ruled that comment was protected by the First Amendment: “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.”
Laurion told the Duluth News Tribune, “The initial excitement has not worn off. I’m very gratified it’s all over.”
Janelle Markgren: The doc decides to sue over a comment… What is the definition of ‘tool’ again? Lol I think this guy hit the nail on the head with that description.
Jen Vinson: Hahaha suing someone over calling you a tool automatically affirms that you are indeed a tool.
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. 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.
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.