FEBRUARY 6, 2013
“Arrogant Doctors, Online Reviews, and the Hot Water Test”
Trisha Torrey, About.com Guide
In 2011, I told you about the case of McKee V. Laurion – that is – son-of-a-patient-who-died Dennis Laurion, who was sued for defamation of character by his father’s neurologist Dr. David McKee.
The facts aren’t in dispute. Mr. Laurion was upset at the way the neurologist “communicated” with the family. So he did something about it in the most public way he knew how. He wrote reviews of Dr. McKee on 19 different websites (sic), reporting, according to a Duluth (MN) news article in April 2011, that . . . Dr. McKee “seemed upset” that Kenneth Laurion (the father) had been transferred from the Intensive Care Unit to a ward room; that McKee told the Laurion family that he had to “spend time finding out if [the patient] had been transferred or died;” that McKee told the Laurions that 44 percent of hemorrhagic stroke victims die within 30 days; that McKee told the patient that he didn’t need therapy; that McKee said it didn’t matter that the patient’s gown was hanging from his neck with his backside exposed; that McKee blamed the patient for the loss of his time; and that McKee didn’t treat his patient with dignity.
Bottom line – Dennis Laurion felt the doctor had been arrogant, condescending, and not respectful of his patient or his patient’s family. And when he said so publicly, the doctor sued him.
In the four years since Mr. Laurion Sr. died, the lawsuit has gone up the court ladder with varying outcomes. But last week, the Minnesota Supreme Court handed down the final verdict. Mr. Laurion was within his rights to publicly recount his experience with Dr. McKee. Mr. Laurion won the lawsuit.
So why is that important to empowered patients? Because the more upset we get with the healthcare system, the more we blame doctors or other providers, the more frustrated we are that we aren’t getting the care we think we need and deserve, the more tempted we all are to let the world know about our experiences.
However – despite the Minnesota Supreme Court’s ruling – we do not have carte blanche to say what our anger and frustration tempt us to say.
A few notes for patients: This lawsuit took place in Minnesota. The laws may be different in your state and even then, the world of online reviews is still evolving. Learn how to write a doctor review so that it makes you feel better, helps others, and doesn’t get you into trouble.
The reason Mr. Laurion didn’t lose the suit was because he related facts and observations – not opinions and generalities. That’s the real hot water test. The difference between recounting opinions vs facts can be the difference between winning and losing a defamation lawsuit. Learn how to write a doctor review so that it’s effective, and doesn’t cross the line.
There are many more considerations to writing a doctor review online, whether or not you were happy with your doctor’s treatment. Learn how to share information fairly and comprehensively, in the right places, so that you help others and don’t get yourself into hot water.
A note for SOME doctors (and yes, you know who you are): Whether or not you care to change your communications stripes, please note that the law and your income (think patient satisfaction and HCAHPS) are trending toward your need to improve your communications and for some of you, your attitude in general. No matter what you think of the outcome of this lawsuit, know that it cost Dr. McKee more than $60,000 out of his pocket, including his attempt to try to repair his reputation. Don’t think you are above the same sort of scenario if you don’t treat your patients with the respect and dignity they deserve. If you aren’t a good communicator, then look for courses (even CMEs) to help you. Your career and your reputation may depend on it.
Off my soapbox.
February 7, 2013, Dennis Laurion says: Trisha, thanks for your coverage of David McKee vs. Dennis Laurion.
The reports of my (father’s) death are greatly exaggerated. Although I believe he was told there are only two ways to leave ICU – dead or transferred – he got the better option.
Dennis Laurion and Kenneth Laurion
My father had his stroke at age 84. He is now 88. He has difficulty with gait and balance. His speech and mental resources remain well. My father enlisted in the Navy at age 17 during World War II. By age 19, he was a Navy combat medic in the Solomon Islands, a Second Class Petty Officer, the equivalent of an Army or Marine Corps Staff Sergeant. My father worked two jobs and supported a family while obtaining a Ph.B. and an M.S. in Geriatric Counseling. He was a Boy Scout leader, an Elder in his church, a high school teacher, and a systems analyst at the advent of the computer age.
“The reason Mr. Laurion didn’t lose the suit was because he related facts and observations – not opinions and generalities. That’s the real hot water test. The difference between recounting opinions vs facts can be the difference between winning and losing a defamation lawsuit.”
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 – at least in Minnesota. 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. My three levels of adjudication have involved exercises to determine whether my statements were provable facts or opinion. The plaintiff must prove the facts are willfully misstated, but the defendant can go broke while waiting through the effort. I thinks it’s better said that one should stick to opinions (without exaggeration), but have the facts at hand. Had the Minnesota Supreme Court concluded that I offered facts, I’d be awaiting jury trial. It was, I believe, the conclusion that I’d offered opinions that caused dismissal.
“He wrote reviews of Dr. McKee on 19 different websites, reporting, according to the Duluth News Tribune in April 2011 ”
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, writing 19 letters, and posting 108 or 118 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. Several newspapers accounts have repeated assertions about how many letters I wrote and how many reviews I wrote. You’ll find accusations that I wrote 108 or 118 subsequent postings. You’ll find remarks that most were traced to a single IP address in Duluth. It wasn’t mine, and my internet provider tells me that nobody has ever asked about my IP address.
“No matter what you think of the outcome of this lawsuit, know that it cost Dr. McKee more than $60,000 out of his pocket, including his attempt to try to repair his reputation.”
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.
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. At depositions, the plaintiff and I sat opposite each other, while I answered his lawyer’s questions, and he answered my lawyer’s questions. We were not to speak to each other.
February 7, 2013 at 8:25 am Trisha Torrey says: Dennis, thank you for contributing to this report. I have corrected the statement about your father’s life and apologize for getting that wrong… may he stay healthy and happy for years to come. Regarding your report on how many comments were made, who made them, etc; you have enlightened us all. And it proves exactly what I was saying – we cannot assume that anything we write online, especially through anger or frustration, can’t be tested at unlimited cost. The power still remains with the monied and we can’t forget that. Best of luck to you as you sort out the aftermath.
February 7, 2013, Gemdiamondintherough says: I personally, had not been aware of this particular case. But I can assure you that there are many like it. (Not exactly the same, including court etc). Remember the Golden Rule, that you want to treat others as you would want to be treated. State FACTS AND OBSERVATIONS, NOT OPINIONS. This is true for BOTH the client and the caregiver. OPINIONS will usually not hold up, other than for you, yourself!!!!!!!!!! I KNOW THAT WE ARE ALL TEMPTED TO DO THAT FROM TIME TO TIME, BUT WHEN YOU FEEL BETTER OR ARE SOMEWHAT REMOVED FROM THAT PARTICULAR SITUATION, REVIEW IT YOURSELF AND ASK THE HARD QUESTION. DID I STATE MY OPINION, OR DID I STATE THE FACTS AND OBSERVATIONS? Many times our emotions get in the way and either we saw something that was not there, or heard something that was not said or intended.
February 7, 2013 at 4:39 pm Sandy says: I suppose anyone who has serious medical issues and has interactions with many doctors will run into an arrogant a–. But when they make a mistake, in my mind they lose the right to be arrogant. If it’s surgery, you need to figure out what kind of person you’re dealing with *before* your major procedure. If it’s ongoing care and the doctor’s a jerk, you’re lucky you can probably just move on to another doctor.
February 10, 2013 at 11:27 pm, David McKee says: Okay let me set you straight on a few things. First, Mr Laurion and I do not agree at all as to what was said and what happened. More importantly, Mr. Laurion (the son, not the patient) contradicted his account of what happened numerous times. No Trisha, I am not a real SOB as you have concluded based on accepting the statements which I sued Laurion over as truthful. If they were truthful I would not have brought the suit forward. Dennis Laurion is a sick malicious bully. He wrote several versions of what transpired in his father’s hospital room, each more slanderous and exaggerated than the last. As an example, in the earliest versions of Laurion’s description, he mentioned, accurately, that I helped his father to a standing position. A later version stated that I pulled his father out of bed; still later that I jerked his father against a closed bedrail and against his will.
Laurion also complained that I humiliated his father by not tying the back of his father’s hospital gown. In fact, Dennis Laurion was sitting in a chair on the same side of his father’s bed as the patient. He would have needed only to lean forward a little to reach the ties of the gown. I was on the opposite side of the bed and could not have reached the back of the gown if I had wanted to.
After I left the patient’s room I was sitting at a nurses station only 30 feet from where Dennis Laurion was sitting and in plain sight. He could have discussed any concern with me then without the slightest difficulty. Instead he chose to begin his smear campaign against me. He fired off 19 letters of complaint within the next few days.
He tried for several weeks to get the local media outlets interested; none would have anything to do with him until he met up with Mark Stodghill of the Duluth News Tribune. The two of them met several times over a 2 week period to come up with a great doctor bashing piece of propaganda. Stodghill placed a call to my office at 4:55 p.m. on a Friday. I was not on call and had left for the day. This was the only attempt he made to contact me. The newspaper article came out only 10 hours later. Still the one half hearted attempt to reach me allowed the reporter to accurately state that “calls to Dr. McKee were not returned”, implying that I had something to hide. The article was so biased that of approximately 80 conversations with patients who brought up the matter, only 2 understood that I was suing Laurion; the rest misunderstood and believed I was being sued by Laurion.
I have been the victim of a cowardly relentless series of attacks by a truly sick human being. The fact that you appear to always assume that if a complaint is made against a physician, the physician must be in the wrong, makes you little better than Mark Stodghill who was willing to use the lowest possible journalistic standards seemingly designed to get the story wrong so as to allow for the most inflammatory headline possible.
February 11, 2013 at 11:47 am, Dennis Laurion says: “Dennis Laurion was sitting in a chair on the same side of his father’s bed as the patient. He would have needed only to lean forward a little to reach the ties of the gown.”
While my father was lying down, and when he was seated, I was unaware that the back string was untied. It was my father who mentioned his parting gown. We then insisted on leaving the room to wait in the hall.
“I have been the victim of a cowardly relentless series of attacks by a truly sick human being.”
McKee has learned to exercise his own free-speech rights. In earlier responses to publicity, I’ve been called an oddball sort of fellow, passive-aggressive, liar, bully, coward, and malicious person. I think somebody should have told McKee about the Streisand Effect. I feel that I have been the victim of a game of financial attrition that I haven’t wanted to play.
” As an example, in the earliest versions of Laurion’s description, he mentioned, accurately, that I helped his father to a standing position. A later version stated that I pulled his father out of bed; still later that I jerked his father against a closed bedrail and against his will.”
In my postings to the public, I stopped short of details that would have embarrassed my father but shared those details with a state agency. McKee is apparently including my comments to a state agency, while insisting he didn’t sue me for those contacts.
“He fired off 19 letters of complaint within the next few days.”
McKee is apparently including letters that I wrote as a response to his suit.
“He tried for several weeks to get the local media outlets interested; none would have anything to do with him until he met up with Mark Stodghill of the Duluth News Tribune. The two of them met several times over a 2 week period to come up with a great doctor bashing piece of propaganda.”
When McKee sent a threat letter, I asked 3 local media outlets if such a suit would be a “man bites dog” story. I never mentioned McKee’s name and would not have, had there been no suit. In spite of follow-up inquiries by the press, I demurred giving his name until a public record existed. On the day of filing, Mr. Stodghill found the public record without my prompting and ran the story. Mr Stodghill contacted me once by email and once by phone. We did not meet over any time period, and I did not recognize Mr. Stodghill, who was covering my first court appearance.