“Minnesota’s High Court Finds Online Comments Were Non-Defamatory”
David M. Governo and Monica R. Fanesi of Governo Law Firm LLC
FDCC: Defense Lawyers. Defense Leaders
The Supreme Court of Minnesota held that six statements made on various “rate-your-doctor” websites did not support a doctor’s defamation claim.
Kenneth Laurion, the father of Dennis Laurion, was admitted to the hospital after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke. The attending ICU physician arranged for Dr. McKee, a neurologist, to examine Kenneth Laurion. During a 20 minute examination, Dr. McKee made certain statements and acted in a manner that, as a whole, the Laurions perceived as rude and insensitive.
After Kenneth Laurion was discharged from the hospital, his son posted several comments disapproving of Dr. McKee’s bedside manner on several “rate-your-doctor” websites. He also sent letters to a variety of medically-affiliated institutions complaining about Dr. McKee’s conduct. The letters included substantially the same statements communicated in the online postings.
After learning about the online postings from another patient, Dr. McKee filed suit, asserting claims for defamation per se and interference with business. The trial court granted summary judgment as to Dr. McKee’s defamation claim, concluding that the statements lacked defamatory meaning and were either protected opinion, substantially true, or too vague to convey a defamatory meaning. The appellate court, however, reversed the district court’s decision.
On further appeal, the Supreme Court reviewed the district court’s granting of summary judgment de novo. The Court found that the statements, when compared to representations made by Dr. McKee in his deposition, were “true in substance” and therefore, not actionable. The court also found that the statements failed to convey a defamatory meaning because they failed to harm Dr. McKee’s reputation in the eyes of the community. Specifically, the court noted that the statements did not call into Dr. McKee’s competency as a physician.
In light of consumers’ increased reliance on the Internet as a source of information, companies’ concerns over their reputations, and social media users’ new-found ability to ruin those reputations in an instant, expect to see an increase in this type of litigation. As courts grapple with the complex questions these cases present, including challenging First Amendment issues, the case law will continue to develop, providing more predictability to litigants, but for now, outcomes remain uncertain in this evolving area of the law. A Massachusetts social media defamation case, Clay Corporation v. Colter, in which a car dealership obtained a $700,000 pre-judgment attachment, highlights this emerging trend. We reported on this case and the related case law in an article on Lexology.