February 13, 2015
“Scottsdale Doctors’ $12M Defamation Award Overturned”
Ken Alltucker, The Republic
The Arizona Court of Appeals has overturned a $12 million jury award to a Scottsdale cosmetic surgeon and his physician wife who sued a former patient for defamation over complaints aired in public and on various websites. The three-judge appellate court said the $12 million award — nearly four times larger than the second-highest defamation award in Arizona over the past decade — wasn’t supported by the evidence and “shocks the conscience” of the court. The appellate court vacated the jury award and sent the case sent back to Maricopa County Superior Court for a new trial.
In 2011, a Maricopa County jury awarded Dr. Albert Carlotti and Dr. Michelle Cabret-Carlotti $12 million in actual and punitive damages following a 10-day trial over allegations that jazz singer Sherry Petta defamed the physicians and portrayed them in a false light.
Following the jury verdict, Petta said she filed for bankruptcy and was ordered to sell her Scottsdale house. “This has been the most devastating thing I could have imagined in my life,” Petta said. “I appreciate the appellate court’s decision. I truly look forward to the proper result coming out if there is a new trial.”
Carlotti said Petta rejected his offer to negotiate a settlement. He plans to petition the Arizona Supreme Court for a review of the appellate decision. He claimed that Petta’s persistent complaints on patient websites and her own personal website “heavily damaged our business.” Because she rejected settlement talks, “I don’t have a choice but to go the distance on this,” said Carlotti, who added that doctors can’t adequately defend themselves from consumer website postings because patient-confidentially laws limit what they can disclose. “We’re in a society, particularly on the Internet, where people can express their opinions even if it’s factually inaccurate or destructive,” he said.
In 2007, Carlotti performed cosmetic surgery on Petta’s nose and eyelids and laser treatments on her face. Petta claimed that the laser treatment burned and scarred her face and left her with a persistent, post-procedure infection. The Carlottis attempted to aid her healing and appearance with multiple follow-up treatments, according to court documents.
In January 2008, Carlotti performed a nasal tip surgery on Petta, which Petta later said shortened and curved her nose upward without her permission, according to the appellate court’s opinion.
Petta later filed a complaint with the Arizona Medical Board alleging Carlotti had operated on her nose beyond her consent. Petta and Carlotti later clashed when the doctor refused to hand over her medical records, citing the medical board complaint. Police intervened to ensure Carlotti gave Petta the medical records, according to the appellate court’s opinion.
Petta began posting reviews and complaints and questioned the credentials of the Carlottis on consumer websites, and she created her own website to detail her complaints and warn other patients about the practice.
The Carlottis’ lawyer sent Petta letters in April and May 2008 demanding she remove “all defamatory and baseless” statements from various websites. In May 2008, the Carlottis sued Petta alleging she had posted false and defamatory statements on multiple websites. More than three years later, a Maricopa County jury awarded $12 million to the Carlottis and their medical practice.
The appellate court opinion, delivered by Judge Lawrence F. Winthrop, noted that that Carlottis’ claims of special damages were not supported by evidence, such as business operations analysis or tax returns. While testimony claimed that after Petta created her website, the Carlottis’ billings dropped from $1.52 million in 2007 to $444,000 in 2010, the appellate court opinion noted that there was no evidence of how that affected the medical practice’s net income or profit.
The appellate court said that lack of evidence and the lower court’s rejection of Petta’s motion for a new trial “allowed plaintiffs to obtain an award of damages not supported by adequate evidence, and allowed a verdict to stand that not only shocks the conscience of this court but was so extreme ‘as to manifestly indicate passion, prejudice, mistake or a complete disregard of the evidence.’ ”
Terry Tuznik: I am glad this was reversed because this is a direct smack in the face to the call for Healthcare Transparency which allows a consumer to have information about the price AND quality of healthcare services. This information allows a patient to make informed decisions which lower costs and improve outcomes. If a patient is not allowed to share their experience with others this will allow providers of lower quality care to continue to do so without a any repercussions.
Debra McGuinn Savittieri: Scary as hell that doctors can sue patients and any judge or jury would award any money to a doctor from his patient..Shame on the Carlotti clan for doing this to any patient! Ugh!
Julie Lee Smith: How is this any different from people posting grades on healthnet and other websites that rate doctors??? I am a healthcare practitioner and everyone is entitled to their opinion! People can review food and services on yelp so why would opinions on health care practitioners be any different? If Ms. Petta was unhappy with her procedure, care and outcomes, she should be free to say so! Unbelievable. Do people sue other people on yelp and amazon for providing lower ratings? Take some accountability people!