September 20, 2013
What Happens When Doctors Sue Unhappy Patients? (It’s Not Pretty)
Healthcare Success: Scientific Marketing That Delivers Patients
Experienced doctors tell us that, sooner or later in their career, every physician will face the prospect of legal action. Between 75 and 99 percent of practicing doctors, depending on their specialty, will be threatened by a lawsuit according to a NEJM study.
Although “patient-sues-doctor” rarely makes the news, the reverse situation—doctor-sues-patient—seems to make the headlines with regularity. And the core issue is a negative or unflattering online rating or comment by a patient about a doctor. But the outcome is seldom satisfactory.
Patients are increasingly engaged and empowered regarding their healthcare, due in part by the pervasive Internet. Doctors are understandably—and justifiably—concerned about their professional reputation…also with added muscle of view-anywhere web postings.
In a previous post, Legally Dumb: Should a Doctor or Dentist Sue a Patient for Bad-Mouth Comments?, we sympathized with a practitioner’s frustration and outright anger. Negative comments and online reviews can be untrue, unkind and one sided. But, from a public relations perspective, suing a patient for a negative comment just might be the worst thing to do. In PR terms it likely will grab new and broader media attention, repeat and extend the controversy, patients may sympathize with patients, and generally inflame the original issue.
Bad-mouth comments on personal blogs and collective-comment review sites can be influential among patients and prospective patients. There are dozens of user forums that has expanded to include Angie’s List (initially home improvement services), and Yelp (initially reviews of local restaurants).
Some news reports, The Boston Globe for example, suggest that doctors are firing back at patients’ online critiques, but with mixed results.
“The Digital Media Project at Harvard University tracks lawsuits filed against patients and others for online comments. Its website includes seven such cases filed over the past five years or so, though it’s not a comprehensive list. In some, patients took down their negative comments. In others, judges dismissed the suit, ruling that patients’ comments were protected under the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.”
We’re not offering legal advice here, but as another recent indicator, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that an online post about a Duluth neurologist is protected speech. And, according to the AP story about this ruling, “Experts say lawsuits over negative professional reviews are relatively uncommon and rarely succeed, partly because the law favors freedom of speech.”
Seeking professional legal counsel is sound advice for your situation. Our previous post lists some of the possible public relations consequences that should be considered, as well as observations from noted healthcare attorney Stephen Kaufman.
Dennis Laurion: [QUOTE] We’re not offering legal advice here, but as another recent indicator, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that an online post about a Duluth neurologist is protected speech. [END QUOTE]
[COMMENT] In response to a newspaper article about David McKee MD V. Dennis Laurion, Dr. McKee, founder of Northland Neurology and practitioner at St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth, Minnesota, said that money is money, and he wouldn’t remember the impact in five years. I wrote my review of Dr. David McKee five years ago. I can’t speak for Dr. McKee, but I still remember the impact.
This entire experience has been distressing to my family. We were initially shocked and blindsided by “jocular” comments made so soon after my father’s stroke by somebody who didn’t know us. We were overwhelmed by my being sued after posting a consumer opinion, and we were shocked by the rapidity with which it happened.
David McKee MD V. Dennis K. Laurion has been the 800 pound gorilla in the room. My parents would be 88-year-old witnesses. My mother and wife prefer no discussion, because they don’t want to think about it. Conversation with my father only reminds him of his anger over this situation. My siblings and children don’t often bring it up, because they don’t know how to say anything helpful. I have been demoralized by three years of being called “Defendant Laurion” in public documents.
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, posting 108 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.
What it’s like for a patient or family member to be caught up in a case like McKee V. Laurion was already described by the plaintiff’s lawyer in a Star Tribune newspaper article, “Company sues over info put on Yahoo message board,” August 27, 2001. It said in part: “IF A COMPANY SUES, alleging simple business disparagement or perhaps defamation, ITS GOAL ISN’T NECESSARILY TO WIN,” SAID MARSHALL TANICK, a First Amendment expert at Mansfield & Tanick in Minneapolis. “THE STRATEGY IS TO FORCE THE OTHER PERSON TO INCUR HUGE LEGAL EXPENSES THAT WILL DETER THEM AND OTHERS from making such statements,” he said … “yet very few (cases) go all the way to trial and verdict,” Tanick said. [ Emphasis added ]
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.
After receipt of a threat letter, I deleted my rate-your-doctor site postings and sent confirmation emails to opposing counsel. Since May of 2010, postings on the Internet by others include newspaper accounts of the lawsuit; readers’ remarks about the newspaper accounts; and blog opinion pieces written by doctors, lawyers, public relations professionals, patient advocates, and information technology experts. Dozens of websites by doctors, lawyers, patient advocates, medical students, law schools, consumer advocates, and free speech monitors posted opinions that a doctor or plumber shouldn’t sue the family of a customer for a bad rating. These authors never said they saw my deleted ratings – only the news coverage.
It was not my intention to use any descriptions or conclusions. It was also not my intention to claim that I had proof. Only my family and the doctor were in the room. My intention was to portray my recollection of what happened in my father’s room. The public could decide what to believe and what – if any – impact it had on them: insensitive doctor or overly-sensitive consumer?
Medical peer newsletters or magazines that interviewed the plaintiff did not approach me. Websites maintained by doctors for doctors or lawyers for lawyers often caused an inference that I was a zealot family member or somebody who had asked about my dad’s chances and then shot the messenger. Generally, however, those websites echoed other websites in advising public relations responses other than a lawsuit – for fear of creating the “Streisand Effect.” As a retired layman, I brought far less resources to the battle of financial attrition.
The Minnesota Supreme Court compared every statement I attributed to Dr. David McKee against every statement he claimed he really said. The Court concluded the impact of each set of statements was the same. For instance, the Minnesota high court said that Dr. David McKee’s version of his comment about the intensive care unit was substantially similar to mine.
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. 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. The plaintiff must prove the facts are willfully misstated, but the defendant can go broke while waiting through the effort.
During the existence of David McKee MD vs Dennis Laurion, I heard Dr. McKee’s lawyer tell the Minnesota Supreme Court how I could have commented without being defamatory. I am upset. I think Doctor McKee did not treat my father well. I think he was insensitive. He did not spend enough time in my opinion. [END COMMENT]
Stewart Gandolf, MBA, is CEO of Healthcare Success, a medical marketing and health care advertising agency. He is also a frequent writer and speaker. Most importantly, he is happily married and a “rock-n-roll daddy” to two wonderful girls.