MARCH 3, 2012
“When Doctors Sue Patients – Defamation Is Devastating – But A Lawsuit Could Make It Worse”
Jeffrey Segal, MD, JD, Medical Justice
Dog bites man never makes the newspaper. Man bites dog is news. Doctors suing patients (and their families) is news.
Several cases are percolating through the legal system. In each, a doctor sued a patient (or patient’s relative) for online mischief. Doctors are starting to prevail in the legal system. Whether this is a useful strategy for all doctors will be discussed further down. First the details.
In Carlotti v. Petta, Dr. Carlotti, a cosmetic surgeon, successfully sued his former patient – receiving a jury verdict of $12 million in December 2011. In 2007, Albert Carlotti, performed a number of procedures on Ms. Petta, a singer, including a rhinoplasty.
To say Petta was unhappy would be an understatement. She launched a website which claimed, among other things, that Dr. Carlotti was not board-certified. Records showed he was board certified by the American Board of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery.
She claimed Carlotti was being investigated by the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners. Carlotti did not have any disciplinary record with the Arizona Board.
Petta also allegedly obtained phone numbers for some of Caroltti’s patients, calling them, making the same allegations.
Petta’s actions took a toll on the practice. “I was dealing with somebody who had the intent of destroying us professionally, personally and on every level. I went from a very successful surgeon to pretty much out of business.” Carlotti considered relocating to another country. He was forced to sell his home. And he shed over 30 pounds due to stress.
As a last resort, Carlotti sued Petta for defamation. A jury listened to testimony over three weeks. They delivered an 8 figure verdict in one day. The case will likely be appealed.
April 25, 2014
“Internet Opens Door To Free Speech That Can Get Expensive”
Peter Corbett, The Republic
Sherry Petta did not like the results of two surgeries to reshape her nose and a laser procedure to smooth her face more than six years ago. The 51-year-old Scottsdale businesswoman and jazz-piano entertainer was so angry that she posted remarks on consumer websites to complain about her rhinoplasty and treatment at the Desert Palm Surgical Group, a Scottsdale practice of Dr. Albert Carlotti and Dr. Michelle Cabret-Carlotti.
The Carlottis’ attorneys filed a defamation complaint and won a $12 million judgment in 2011 against Petta, who has since lost her home and filed for bankruptcy as she struggles to pay her debt.
“My life and emotions have been turned upside down,” Petta said in a recent interview.
She is appealing the Maricopa County Superior Court jury verdict, asserting that truth is a defense for her comments and that the Carlottis did not prove the more-than-$1 million loss of income they claimed was the result of Petta’s online complaints.
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.
“What About Suing Patients?”
Risk Management Reporter Volume 34, Number 4, Page 6
Lawsuits against patients, usually related to comments on online ratings and reviews websites, have met with varying results across jurisdictions nationwide. Before considering such a step, providers and their legal counsel should carefully consider cases in their state, such as the ones presented below, to determine if the facts of their case would support a cause of action recognized in the jurisdiction and would be likely to succeed.
Even if legal counsel believes that a potential suit has merit, physicians should consult with risk managers and other advisers regarding the public relations implications of such an effort. Providers may ultimately decide that a lawsuit would draw more attention to a negative review or video posted online than it would garner on its own and could perpetuate a reputation of the provider as “the doctor who sued her patient.” Possibly worse, the plaintiff may respond with a malpractice lawsuit.
Arizona: $12 Million Verdict Overturned
In a case initially decided in 2011, a pair of plastic surgeons sued a former patient for defamation and won a $12 million verdict. In the case, the patient suffered an infection after she received care from the surgeons.
She started a website dedicated to criticizing the two surgeons and questioned their credentials. The surgeons sued her in 2008, and the patient complied with a restraining order to delete the site. At the same time, she launched an extended online campaign criticizing the surgeons on various other websites, lodging professional board complaints, and attending public meetings, all with the intent of hurting the surgeons’ practice.
In suing the patient, the surgeons stated that her online comments and activities had their desired effect, causing such revenue loss as to effectively close their practice.
A jury awarded $11 million in actual damages and $1 million in punitive damages.
An Arizona court of appeals overturned the decision in 2015, writing that the award “shocks the conscience of this court” and finding that the plaintiffs offered insufficient evidence to justify such a large award. Although the appeals court nullified the amount of the award, the court agreed with the trial court that the clinicians were not entitled to summary judgment. The court ordered a new jury trial to determine whether the patient’s statements were actionable opinions or exaggerations that defamed the providers.