May 29, 2012
“Plastic Surgeon Sues Patient for Posting Negative Review”
John Washam, Talk To The Manager Blog
Restaurants and hotels aren’t the only categories of service business that are vulnerable to online reviews. Healthcare providers also are wary of reviews appearing on medical review sites such as Vitals, Rate MDs, and Rate Your Doctor.
Dr. Armando Soto is claiming defamation against a patient who posted a negative review on Rate MDs.
Domingo Rivera, attorney for Dr. Soto, said the patient’s comments on Rate MDs aren’t opinions protected by the First Amendment but a “malicious campaign of unlawfully defaming and spreading lies” about his client and business.
The counsel for the unnamed patient warned the suit could have a chilling effect on users of sites such as Angie’s List, Yelp, Rate Your Doctor, and others that rate professionals and services. “The terror created by this lawsuit will squelch freedom of speech,” said David Muraskin, a Public Citizen attorney representing the defendant.
In 2011, the anonymous online comments about breast-augmentation surgeries claimed that the doctor had botched the work, saying there was unevenness, extra scarring and other issues. The doctor’s lawyers claim those statements are defamatory because they aren’t true, while other comments about the “end result is horrible” is an opinion.
David Muraskin of the Public Citizen Litigation Group said, “If a patient is unhappy, they can use constructive criticism, or return to the surgeon to fix it.”
Rivera said. “This person has a vendetta, and my client has to use the court system to remedy that.”
The Henrico County Circuit Court granted Soto a subpoena in April to force Comcast to divulge the Internet IP address, identity, mailing and billing addresses of the person who posted the comment.
Rivera said he most likely will drop that subpoena because he has independently learned that patient is an Osceola County schoolteacher. He suspects she has posted multiple comments on the website, posing as another unhappy patient. He did not identify the patient and has not transferred the lawsuit to Florida yet.
“It is almost a certainty that we will file there,” he said. “This person will be dealt with.”
Rivera said Soto wants the posts removed and is seeking $49,000 in damages.
Dr. Armando Soto: Free Speech is Great; Defamation is Illegal; but Patient Satisfaction is King.
Here are the facts of this situation.
Some time ago, we became aware of a collection of internet posts that bore no resemblance to truthful patient experiences in our practice. There have also been, over the years, a small number of other negative opinions expressed, with which we were not as concerned, understanding that we can never make everybody happy, and that the people involved were not going to be possible for us to please, no matter how hard we tried.
However, because this particular collection of posts included multiple untruthful representations of fact, because they include duplication of complaints with subtle differences and different usernames to make it look as though written by multiple people (when in reality a single person was responsible), and because some included no truth at all (again, in statements represented as fact), we felt it important to pursue the matter.
Why? Well, first of all, because as a professional who takes his relationships with his patients and their complete satisfaction as seriously as I do, it was important to me that I do everything possible to understand (for the benefit of this individual as well as my practice) why this person had not expressed any legitimate complaints to me directly and allowed us to guide her through a thoughtful and appropriate course of action prior to posting untruthful and damaging things about me on the web. The vast majority of my patients would attest, I believe, to the extreme dedication to patient satisfaction we practice in my office every day- and I believe it is evident to them that we often do so even when not in our financial best interests. In other words, we believe in doing the right thing- and did not understand why someone would do this.
Secondly, there is no one alive today that is more thankful for the opportunities, freedoms, and rights that we as Americans enjoy than me. I am a living example of The American Dream. I simply would not have been able to achieve everything I have in any other nation on Earth, and I am deeply grateful for that. For the legal eagles at Public Citizen to say that I am trying to “squelch free speech” is ignorant, offensive, and more importantly, untrue.
I believe all of our constitutional rights- including the right to free speech are valuable and ought to be protected- but as an American who HAS worked so hard to accomplish everything I have, I also believe (just as strongly) that we have a right to protect our good names from libel and slander. These rights are no less important.
I believe the zealous, if misguided people at Public Citizen have an ax to grind on this issue of internet free speech, and would like to use me as their stone… but this is simply not my issue. I have no problem with free expression of opinion. Just libel and slander. Thank God that in America, we recognize a difference.
The reason all of the people who complained on the web about me were named in the suit is because it was necessary to do so in order to identify this one person. It is also required that damages requested be stipulated- but our goal was never to attempt to recover money. Our goal was to identify the person involved, come to an understanding of the causes of her behavior, and bring light to the truth, while hopefully recovering a more healthy doctor-patient relationship and achieving her satisfaction.
Experience has shown that the most vocal and happy clients/patients of any business are those who may have been initially displeased and were then won over by the establishment’s skills at recovering their satisfaction and trust. It has been our goal to have this opportunity with this person, and I am pleased to say we are on our way to achieving this end.
I have no problem with the occasional patient expressing a negative opinion of me. The fact is that even a cursory review of my education, training, experience, work product, and the vast majority of prior patient experiences would reveal a level of success and accomplishment with which I believe I can be rightfully proud, and which belies the idea being pushed by the brilliant minds at Public Citizen- that I am a poorly qualified surgeon who is trying to keep the word of my incompetence from getting out somehow by suing all critics into submission.
The truth is that the lawsuit we filed had a very limited purpose- to identify the person responsible for this one particular collection of fraudulent and defamatory (because they included multiple representations of fact that could be objectively proven to be false) posts. The suit served that purpose. The patient in question, in fact, has at this point admitted to everything I describe above, and we are actively discussing a solution acceptable to all, with restoration of a healthier relationship. Which is really what good health care is all about.
To summarize, I have no problem with the reality that there are always going to be some who have a negative opinion of me as a professional, despite my best efforts. But I believe I have a right to protect my reputation when behavior crosses the line towards libel and slander. In this particular case, thankfully, the patient has admitted her wrongdoing, agreed to resolve the issues with me, and even asked that I take her back as a patient- such is her true assessment of me.
This is- for the patient, and for me, a very successful outcome.
John Washam: I see that this has been a difficult experience for you and I’m glad that you’ve reached a resolution. So many businesses are vulnerable to online reviews and in most cases the reviewer is not held accountable. Free speech does not imply “freedom from responsibility”. Speech can impact good people who are doing their best to run a business and provide valuable services to the community.