JANUARY 30, 2013,
“Minnesota Supreme Court – Website Comments About Duluth Doctor Not Defamatory”
Criticisms a patient’s son made about a Duluth neurologist — including one referring to the physician as a “real tool” — are not cause for a lawsuit, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled.
In an opinion filed Wednesday, the court found for Dennis Laurion, the patient’s son, reversing a Minnesota Court of Appeals decision that had sent Dr. David McKee’s defamation lawsuit against him back to the District Court in Duluth.
Laurion had posted his comments on a website where patients review their doctors. The case has been watched with interest because of the potential conflict between free speech versus protection of professional reputations on the Internet.
The opinion, written by Justice Alan Page, said the statements Laurion wrote about McKee were not defamatory because they’re opinions 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,” the justices said. “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 ruling also said it doesn’t matter whether an unnamed nurse to whom Laurion attributed the “real tool” comment actually exists. McKee’s attorney argued that Laurion might have fabricated the nurse, something Laurion’s attorney denied.
Laurion said the entire experience was stressful on his family. “The initial excitement has not worn off,” he told the News Tribune. “I’m very gratified it’s all over.”
Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney Mark Anfinson, who watched the oral arguments before the Supreme Court in September, said on Wednesday the justices made the right decision.
That being said, “You can’t blame a guy like Dr. McKee for being upset,” Anfinson said. “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.” Before the Internet, people who complained about others typically did so to a small group of family, friends and acquaintances. “No one in the wider world ever heard them,” Anfinson said. That is no longer the case. “If you’re a practicing physician or other professional in a highly competitive environment, and this stuff is out there for any potential patient or client to see, it isn’t as simple as a superficial reading of the Supreme Court opinion would suggest,” he said. “I kind of feel for the guy, but the law as it is currently constituted really doesn’t provide him much of a remedy. That is the moral of the story.”
McKee, a neurologist with Northland Neurology and Myology, said Wednesday he was disappointed and frustrated. “We need to change the law so someone with a personal vendetta who is going to use the Internet to make defamatory statements can be held responsible,” he said.
McKee filed the lawsuit against Laurion, of Duluth, in 2010. McKee alleged that Laurion defamed him and interfered with his business by posting false statements on the Internet and to various third parties, including the American Academy of Neurology, the American Neurological Association, the St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services Advisory Committee and St. Luke’s hospital, among others. McKee asked for more than $50,000 in damages.
Laurion was critical of how his father, Kenneth, now 88, and his family were treated by McKee after his father suffered a hemorrhagic stroke and spent four days at St. Luke’s hospital April 17 through 21 of 2010. Laurion claimed that any statements he made about the doctor were true and that he is immune from any liability to the plaintiff.
In 2011, State District Judge Eric Hylden ruled that McKee was not defamed by the criticism and dismissed the doctor’s lawsuit.
McKee appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals and in January 2012 that court sent the case back to the district court for a jury to decide whether six statements Laurion posted about McKee on rate-your-doctor websites and distributed elsewhere were defamatory.
To establish a defamation claim, a party must prove that the defendant communicated to a third party a factual assertion that is false and tends to harm a plaintiff’s reputation in the community.
Laurion appealed the Court of Appeals decision to the Supreme Court and the case was heard in St. Paul in September.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Alysia Colandrea says: When Dennis Laurion posted his personal opinion about Dr. David McKee online and how he believed that he and his family were treated poorly under his medical watch, he was completely protected by his first amendment right to free speech when doing so. Laurion was not putting off his opinion as fact that the doctor was an awful doctor, he was stating HIS personal opinion. By taking Laurion to court on a libel case, he failed to recognize the fact that this opinion based article posted by Laurion was nothing more than an OPINION. He was not defaming him– he was stating his personal experience with the doctor, as well as comments that his own nurses had shared about him, such as “he’s such a tool.” As the case was appealed to different courts, the rulings were always in favor of Laurion. However, since it’s a case containing a First Amendment issue, it was brought to Supreme Court and was continually ruled in Laurion’s favor.
Brian Lambert says: I think I mentioned this before. But if every journalist ripped in the comments section took his complaint to court …