FEBRUARY 8, 2013
“Minnesota Supreme Court Finds Online Comments About Physician Not Defamatory”
McKee v. Laurion, A11-1154 (Minn. Jan. 30, 2013)
The supreme court for the state of Minnesota held that a physician’s defamation claims against a defendant who complained on various websites about the physician’s conduct were not actionable, as there were no genuine issues of material fact as to the falsity of defendant’s statements, or the statements did not convey a defamatory meaning as a matter of law.
Defendant’s father was hospitalized after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke. The treating physician, plaintiff, allegedly made rude and insensitive remarks to defendant and family members when they were visiting the patient. Defendant went on various “rate-your-doctor” websites to describe the allegedly rude and insensitive communications and also wrote letters to various medically affiliated institutions to complain about plaintiff’s conduct.
The physician sued defendant, asserting claims for defamation per se and interference with business. The district court granted defendant’s motion of summary judgment and dismissed plaintiff’s claims with prejudice. The court of appeals affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the interference with business claim but reversed with respect to six of the eleven allegedly defamatory statements made online. The high court reversed the appeals court ruling, affirming the district court’s granting of summary judgment for defendant.
Under Minnesota state law, the defamatory statement must have been communicated to someone other than the plaintiff; must be false; must tend to harm the plaintiff’s reputation and to lower [the plaintiff] in the estimation of the community; and the recipient of the false statement must reasonably understand it to refer to a specific individual.
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 circumstances.”