AUGUST 22, 2013
“The Perils Of Fighting Negative Online Reviews In The Courts”
Case Study: Stacy Mahknevich, DDS
Larry Emmott, DDS, Emmott on Technology
Online user reviews have become incredibly powerful. Unfortunately the system as it now stands is deeply flawed, ripe for abuse, inherently corrupt. Professionals, especially dentists, are prime targets with virtually no legal protection. As a dental professional your reputation is golden, it is a large part of the value of your practice. Anything that damages that reputation can have significant financial, professional and even legal consequences.
In the past if you had an unhappy patient, and even good dentists will have unhappy patients, he or she might complain to one person at work or a neighbor. At most a handful of people would hear the rant. Today if they post on Google or Yelp, hundreds of people will see it including every potential new patient who Googles your office to find the phone number and address.
If you are the victim of a false or malicious review can you seek a legal remedy? So far the answer is no, the courts both the legal courts and the court of public opinion have clearly come down on the side of the reviewer and against the dentist. Attempts by dentists to protect themselves with legal intervention have led to disaster.
Dr. Stacy Makhnevich, a dentist from New York, contracted with a firm called “Medical Justice” that assured her their contract would protect her from malicious online reviews. Eventually she received what she thought was an unfair patient review and attempted to enforce the agreement. However far from forcing the patient to back down he turned around and sued her with the aid of a “public interest” organization the Public Citizen Litigation Group willing to push the matter. Then the media piled on, the story was picked up by over 200 news outlets including MSNBC, CBS, the Washington Post and Yahoo. She was crucified.
Now a year later a story at Ars Technica reports that Dr. Makhnevich has disappeared. Her lawyers have been unable to get in touch with her, she has closed her business, and her lawyers are looking to withdraw from the case.
I have no idea if the patient review was fair or not. I have no idea how good a dentist Dr. Makhnevich is. The negative review had more to do with billing and insurance than with quality of care. I have no idea if she was maligned and lied about. The sad truth is that none of that matters now; she has been driven from the profession by an online review and her attempts to protect herself.
This issue is far from over. There are numerous suits still pending against review sites such as Yelp. One Texas dentist even threatened a patient with criminal charges over a negative review. We need to strike a balance between free speech, providing accurate information to consumers and the right to protect ourselves from false and malicious attacks. The future is coming and it will be amazing!