SEPTEMBER 26, 2013
“Doctors, Patients Battle Over Online Critiques”
By Liz Kowalczyk, Boston Globe
Earlier this year, I wrote a story about Gary Votour’s legal battle with neurosurgeon Dr. Sagun Tuli. Votour’s wife, Lyn, died of complications from bone cancer and soon after, he blogged about his dissatisfaction with the medical care Tuli had given her.
Tuli filed a $100,000 defamation lawsuit against him in Middlesex Superior Court in February.
Given the fervent reader interest in Votour’s situation, I want to provide an update on the case, as well as on another lawsuit I mentioned in my April story. It was brought by California neurosurgeon Dr. Aaron Filler against a former patient in 2011.
Most notably, Votour—who owes thousands of dollars in credit card debt for expenses related to Lyn’s illness—was taken under the wing of major Boston lawfirm Wilmer Hale, which agreed to represent him free of charge. The case was moved to federal court in Boston and Votour’s attorney, Adam Hornstine, has filed a motion to dismiss Tuli’s lawsuit.
The firm believes the case may have broader implications: Among other reasons, Hornstine has filed a potential challenge with the court and Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office to a state law that can hold people liable for making true statements under certain circumstances, which he argues is unconstitutional.
“It’s an affirmative defense protecting my right to free speech,’’ said Votour, who said he posted the blog because Tuli refused to meet with him to answer questions about a stroke his wife suffered during surgery.
While Votour took down his blog in February, he said settlement talks with Tuli have failed so far.
Tuli’s attorney, David Rich, said he could not comment on the case. But he told me last Spring that Votour’s criticisms were false and that the blog damaged his client’s career.
Her lawsuit is part of a wave of claims brought by doctors against former patients, and sometimes their relatives, over negative ratings and reviews they have posted on the Internet. These reviews have shifted the balance of power among doctors and patients. And while some lawyers say doctors only draw more attention to negative comments by suing over them, Filler said sometimes a physician needs to take strong action.
He sued a former patient in a Los Angeles court for posting negative comments about him on rating sites such as RateMDs.com, including “stating falsely that information she has seen suggested Dr. Filler posed an unusually high risk of death to patients,’’ according to his complaint.
Dr. Filler says he brought the case in part because none of his patients had died. While a judge dismissed Filler’s original suit, he said in a recent interview that he was able to get the patient, Susan Walker, to remove her comments and that additional litigation is pending. (In fact, the comment about risk of death was posted again by the patient from another site.) The comments “caused huge harm because there are hundreds of people suffering in pain right now’’ because they are too afraid to seek care from him, he said.
“My message is that physicians should respond to these things,’’ he said. “I don’t think you should be falsely accused of murder and take it. It was shouting fire in a crowded theater.’’
Walker’s attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.