FEBRUARY 4, 2013
“Minnesota High Court Dismisses Doctor’s Defamation Suit”
Judy Greenwald, Business Insurance Blog
The Minnesota Supreme Court has dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed by a physician against a patient’s son, ruling there is no genuine dispute as to what the doctor said and did.
A defense attorney says last week’s 6-0 ruling in David McKee, M.D. v. Dennis K. Laurion provides guidance in defamation cases.
According to the ruling, Mr. Laurion’s father, Kenneth, was admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth, Minnesota, on April 17, 2010, after suffering a stroke. Dr. McKee, a neurologist, examined him two days later and told the patient that, “When you weren’t in (the intensive care unit), I had to spend time finding out if you transferred or died.”
The younger Mr. Laurion cited this statement and other alleged examples of the doctor’s behavior that day in various “rate-your-doctor” websites and in letters to medically-affiliated institutions, complaining about Dr. McKee’s conduct.
Dr. McKee sued Mr. Laurion for defamation and interference with business. A judge dismissed both claims by the doctor. A state appellate court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the claim alleging interference with the business, but reversed the lower court with respect to six allegedly defamatory statements the younger Mr. Laurion posted online and reinstated the case.
The appellate court ruled that the statements were actual assertions and not opinions, that there were “genuine issues of material fact” as to their falsity, and that the statements tended to harm Dr. McKee’s reputation.
However, the Minnesota Supreme Court disagreed.
“Truth is a complete defense to a defamation act,” the Minnesota Supreme Court said in dismissing the case. “If the statement is true in substance, minor inaccuracies of expression or detail are immaterial.”
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.”
Commenting on the ruling, V. John Ella, a partner with law firm Jackson Lewis L.L.P. in Minneapolis, who was not involved in the case, said the ruling “clarified from the highest court in the state some principles” in “what is opinion and what is technically false, but substantially true.” Mr. Ella also said that the Internet “has led to more defamation claims. This case in Minnesota should push back on that tendency a little bit” and limit the plaintiff lawsuits.