February 2, 2016
Regarding: McKee vs Laurion Defamation Lawsuit
The Facts of the Case: McKee vs Laurion is a defamation case that lasted a total of four years and took place in the state of Minnesota. The case began when Dr. David McKee filed a lawsuit against the defendant, Dennis Laurion, claiming that Laurion posted defamatory statements online that damaged McKee’s reputation and interfered with his business.
The statements in question were in reference to an interaction between the plaintiff and defendant in which Mr. Laurion felt that Dr. McKee acted inappropriately while evaluating the defendant’s father, Kenneth Laurion. Julia Hilden of Verdict-Justia.com summarized the interaction between McKee and Laurion as “The six statements at issue concerned the medical treatment that Dennis Laurion’s father, Kenneth Laurion, after having had a stroke and being hospitalized, had received from Dr. McKee. Unhappy with statements that Dr. McKee had made, and perceiving Dr. McKee’s attitude to be rude and insensitive, Dennis Laurion then left negative comments about Dr. McKee on rate-your-doctor websites.” Laurion admitted to posting negative reviews about Dr. McKee on a number of websites however Laurion contested that all of his statements were either true or personal opinions and therefore not actionable in regards to a defamation law suit in the State of Minnesota.
Minnesota state law officially states that “To establish the elements of a defamation claim in Minnesota, a plaintiff must prove that (1) the defamatory statement was communicated to someone other than the plaintiff; (2) the statement is false; (3) the statement tends to “harm the plaintiff’s reputation and lower the plaintiff in the estimation of the community; and (4) the recipient of the false statement reasonably understands it to refer to a specific individual.” Since Mr. Laurion felt that his statements were true he asked the district court to dismiss the lawsuit. The district court agreed with the defendant, stating “six allegedly defamatory statements posted online by the appellant criticizing the respondent doctor for what the appellant perceived as rude and insensitive behavior are not actionable because either there is no genuine issue of material fact as to the statements’ falsity or the statements do not convey a defamatory meaning as a matter of law,” and ruled to toss the case out.
McKee, however, appealed the decision and won in the appellate court. The appellate court made the argument that the statements in question could indeed cause damage to the doctor’s reputation, especially if any of the statements were found to be fabricated by the defendant. Due to the appellate court’s decision, the Supreme Court of Minnesota decided to hear the case. In the end the Supreme Court sided with the district court and overturned the appellate court’s decision.
“We conclude that there is no genuine issue of material fact as to the falsity of statements 1, 2, and 4”. In other words, the Minnesota Supreme Court concluded that these statements were not actionable as the court deemed these statements to be true. The Minnesota Supreme Court also found statements 3 and 5 not to be actionable but on the basis that the statements were not defamatory and did no harm to the medical professional’s reputation. And finally statement 6 was ruled to be a matter of opinion and therefore protected by First Amendment rights. In conclusion, the case was thrown out by the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2013 on the basis that none of the statements made by the defendant were actionable offenses according to Minnesota defamatory law.
Legal Principles: This case was very interesting because it involved a number of legal principles that we have discussed in class. In a general sense the case can be summarized as a Defamatory Lawsuit however a deeper analysis of the case showcases a number of legal principles taking place.
One of the first decisions a plaintiff must decide is whether his or her case is libel or slander. In this case, the statements made by the defendant were posted online via rate-your-doctor websites. This means that the defendant’s statements would be consideredlibel in court on the basis that his comments were published or broadcasted to a wide audience. However, one could make the case that because the medium in which Laurion used to make his comments was specifically designed to express one’s opinions about his or her doctor or quality of medical care then his statements cannot be considered libel because the medium specifically promotes matters of opinion and therefore the publisher’s audience consumes the posted information with this assumption in mind.
Another principle that can be associated with this case is SLAPP law. SLAPP stands for strategic lawsuits against public participation, in other words SLAPP cases are used to intimidate and silence a less powerful critic. In this case, one could make the argument that McKee’s lawsuit served to intimidate Laurion into removing/retracting his negative statements and therefore could violate Minnesota’s anti-SLAPP laws.
The defendant, however, built his defense around the basis that his comments were true and therefore could not be ruled defamatory as opposed to using an anti-SLAPP defense. This is most likely due to the fact that SLAPP cases are notoriously difficult to mediate and judges often make erroneous decisions. As a result of this decision, the defendant must evaluate if any of his comments due in fact coincide with any of the elements of defamation. In this case it really came down to just two elements; defamatory content and falsity.
By the time the case reached the Minnesota Supreme Court the 6 statements in question were clearly defined:
- Statement 1.) Dr. McKee said he had to “spend time finding out if you were transferred or dead”
- Statement 2.) Dr. McKee said, “44% of hemorrhagic strokes die within 30 days. I guess this is the better option.”
- Statement 3.) Dr. McKee said, “You [Kenneth Laurion] don’t need therapy.”
- Statement 4.) Dr. McKee said, “It doesn’t matter” that the patient’s gown did not cover his backside.
- Statement 5.) Dr. McKee left the room without talking to the patient’s family.
- Statement 6.) A nurse told Laurion that Dr. McKee was “a real tool”.
The court ruled that 3 of the 6 statements were factual and therefore did not interfere with the falsity element of defamation and that 2 of the 6 statements were not defamatory content, in other words the statements did not cause any harm to the doctor’s reputation.
The 6th statement was unique in that it referenced a statement made by someone other than the defendant. On one of Laurion’s web posts he stated that after he complained to a nurse about Dr. McKee’s behavior the nurse responded with “Dr. McKee is a real tool”. McKee argued that this damaged his image to the public and that the nurse most likely did not exist, implying that Laurion fabricated the remark. The court, however, said that because “real tool” is not a definable term and that because the comments were made by a third party outside of when the actual incident took place that the statement is a matter of opinion and therefore protected by First Amendment Rights.
My Analysis: This case was interesting to me for a number of reasons. Firstly, my best friend is currently studying to be a doctor and I found it very interesting how medical professionals receive no special treatment/bias in the eyes of the law. I assumed that because ‘doctors’ are typically viewed as upper class, morally upright individuals, that Dr. McKee in this case would receive some kind of leniency with his claim however the court’s ruled that although the comments made regarding Dr. McKee were indeed negative, they were not considered to be defamatory. I fully agree with the court’s decision to throw out this case. I believe that Mr. Laurion was simply exercising his First Amendment rights by stating factual information about his experience with Dr. McKee. Furthermore I would even consider Mr. Laurion’s actions to be a public service in that he is warning members of our society about an individual who he sees as a potential hazard. I also found it very interesting how the court broke down the defendant’s remarks into 6 clear and concise statements. This allowed the court to evaluate each statement individually rather than Mr. Laurion’s remarks as a whole. As a result, the court’s justification for tossing the suit comes across crystal clear because each statement was reviewed individually and given its own reason why the statement didn’t conflict with Minnesota State’s defamation law.