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Critical online reviews can carry legal risks

By STEVE KARNOWSKI

Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – A Minnesota doctor took offense when a patient’s son posted critical remarks about him on some rate-your-doctor websites, including a comment by a nurse who purportedly called the physician “a real tool.”

So Dr. David McKee had an unusually aggressive response: He sued the son for defamation. The Duluth neurologist’s improbable case has advanced all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which is weighing whether the lawsuit should go to trial.

“His reputation is at stake. He does not want to be a target for false and malicious remarks,” said his lawyer, Marshall Tanick.

McKee’s case highlights the tension that sometimes develops on websites such as Yelp and Angie’s List when the free speech rights of patients and their families clash with the rights of doctors, lawyers and other professionals to protect their good names.

“Patients now have power to affect their businesses in ways they never had,” said Eric Goldman, a professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law who studies the issue. Health care providers are “evolving how to deal with patient feedback, but they’re still in the process of learning how to do that.”

Most online reviews never provoke any response. And successful challenges to negative reviews are rare. Americans are legally entitled to express opinions, as long as they don’t knowingly make false statements.

But if the two sides contest basic facts, disputes can swiftly escalate.

At issue are six of Dennis Laurion’s statements, including the account of the nurse’s name calling. McKee and his attorney say the unnamed nurse doesn’t exist and that Laurion invented her to hide behind. Laurion maintains she is real, but he can’t recall her name.

In arguments before the court in September, Laurion attorney John Kelly said his client’s statements were legally protected opinion that conveyed dismay over how McKee treated Laurion’s father, who had suffered a stroke. The posts described a single visit that lasted 10 to 15 minutes.

The review said McKee seemed upset that after Laurion’s father had been moved from intensive care to a regular hospital room, the doctor “had to spend time finding out if you transferred or died.”

Laurion also complained that McKee treated them brusquely and was insensitive to the family’s concerns about the patient being seen in public in a gown that gaped open in the back.

In an interview, Kelly said nothing Laurion posted was defamatory – a false statement that harms a person’s reputation.

The court is expected to rule on the case sometime in the next few months.

Lawsuits over professional reviews are uncommon in part because most patients write positive reviews, Goldman said. And many states have passed laws that block the kind of lawsuits that are filed mainly to scare someone into shutting up on matters of public concern.

Known as “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” those complaints are often forbidden by broad laws that protect criticism even if it’s wrong, Goldman said.

When health care providers do sue, they rarely succeed. Of 28 such lawsuits that Goldman tracked, 16 had been dismissed and six settled. The others were pending.

One notable exception was a Maine case in which a chiropractor sued a former patient for postings on Facebook and websites that accused him of sexually assaulting her. The courts concluded she probably fabricated her story.

In June, a judge ruled that the chiropractor could legally attach $100,000 worth of the patient’s property to his claim as security pending further proceedings in the case, which remains open.

Yelp says reviewers are well within their rights to express opinions and relate their experiences.

Spokeswoman Kristen Whisenand says the company discourages professionals from using what she called the “nuclear option” of suing over a negative review. She said they rarely succeed and wind up drawing more attention to the review they dislike.

Angie Hicks, co-founder of Angie’s List, said people shouldn’t be afraid to post honest opinions about health care or other services.

“Everyone has the right to free speech,” Hicks said. “The key here is giving your honest opinion. Honesty is your best defense. Truth is your best defense.”

Jeff Hermes, director of the Citizens Media Law Project at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said people who want to post critical reviews should think about whether they can back up their statements. And they can strengthen their position by stating the facts on which their opinions are based.

Goldman advises reviewers to remember that they are still taking a risk anytime they criticize someone in a public forum.

“The reality is that we bet our house every time that we post content online,” Goldman said. “It’s a lousy answer from a societal standpoint because we need people to share their experiences so vendors will be punished or rewarded as appropriate.”

8 comments

  1. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=MB0VAAAAIBAJ&sjid=wgMEAAAAIBAJ&pg=6682%2C2701449

    http://chronicle.augusta.com/stories/2001/08/27/bus_321610.shtml

    Toledo Blade 8/24/2001 reprinted article from Minneapolis – St. Paul Star:

    If a (plaintiff) sues, alleging simple business disparagement or perhaps defamation, its goal isn’t necessarily to win, said Marshall Tanick . . . The strategy is to force the other person to incur huge legal expenses that will deter them and others. . . very few cases go all the way to trial. A (plaintiff’s) strategy typically includes filing in a state that might be inconvenient and costly for defendants. Lawyers will seek ways to avoid First Amendment issues because they are hard to prove.

  2. Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune, Updated January 30, 2013 – 9:59 PM

    Finding no harm done, justices toss out lawsuit by Duluth physician.

    Dennis Laurion fired off his screed on a few rate-your-doctor websites in April 2010, along with some letters about what he saw as poor bedside manner by his father’s neurologist. He expected at most what he calls a “non-apology apology.”

    “I really thought I’d receive something within a few days along the lines of ‘I’m sorry you thought I was rude, that was not my intent’ and that would be the end of it,” the 66-year-old Duluth retiree said. “I certainly did not expect to be sued.”

    He was. Dr. David McKee’s defamation lawsuit was the beginning of a four-year legal battle that ended Wednesday when the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled the doctor had no legal claim against Laurion because there was no proof that his comments were false or were capable of harming the doctor’s reputation.

    The unanimous ruling reverses an earlier Appeals Court decision and brings to an end the closely watched case that brought to the forefront a First Amendment debate over the limits of free speech online.

    It’s a frustrating end for McKee, 51, who said he’s spent at least $50,000 in legal fees and another $11,000 to clear his name online after the story went viral, resulting in hundreds more negative postings about him — likely from people who never met him. He hasn’t ruled out a second lawsuit stemming from those posts.

    “The financial costs are significant, but money is money and five years from now I won’t notice the money I spent on this,” he said. “It’s been the harm to my reputation through the repeated publicity and the stress.”

    He said he offered to settle the case at no cost after the Supreme Court hearing. Laurion contends they couldn’t agree on the terms of the settlement, and said he not only deleted his initial postings after he was initially served, but had nothing to do with subsequent online statements about McKee.

    The lawsuit followed the hospitalization of Laurion’s father, Kenneth, for a hemorrhagic stroke at St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth. Laurion, his mother and his wife were also in the room when McKee examined the father and made the statements that Laurion interpreted as rude. After his father was discharged, he wrote the reviews and sent the letters.

    On at least two sites, Laurion wrote that McKee said that “44 percent of hemorrhagic strokes die within 30 days. I guess this is the better option,” and that “It doesn’t matter that the patient’s gown did not cover his backside.”

    Laurion also wrote: “When I mentioned Dr. McKee’s name to a friend who is a nurse, she said, ‘Dr. McKee is a real tool!'”

    McKee sued after he learned of the postings from another patient. A St. Louis County judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying Laurion’s statements were either protected opinion, substantially true or too vague to convey a defamatory meaning. The Appeals Court reversed that ruling regarding six of Laurion’s statements, reasoning that they were factual assertions and not opinions, that they harmed McKee’s reputation and that they could be proven as false.

    The Supreme Court disagreed. Writing the opinion, Justice Alan Page noted that McKee acknowledged that the gist of some of the statements were true, even if they were misinterpreted. Page added that the “tool” statements also didn’t pass the test of defaming McKee’s character. He dismissed an argument by McKee’s attorney, Marshall Tanick, that the “tool” comment was fabricated by Laurion and that the nurse never existed. Whether it was fabricated or not was irrelevant, the court ruled. “Referring to someone as ‘a real tool’ falls into the category of pure opinion because the term ‘real tool’ cannot be reasonably interpreted as stating a fact and it cannot be proven true or false,” Page wrote.

    Tanick said the ruling could present a slippery slope.

    “This decision gives individuals a license to make derogatory and disparaging statements about doctors, professionals and really anyone for that matter on the Internet without much recourse,” he said.

    Jane Kirtley disagreed. The professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism said the ruling stems from “an elementary principle of libel law. I understand the rhetoric, but this is not a blank check for people to make false factual statements,” she said. “Rather, it’s an endorsement that statements of opinion are protected under the First Amendment.”

    Laurion’s attorney, John D. Kelly, said the fact that Laurion’s speech was made online was inconsequential to the ruling, which treated it as a standard defamation case. “It’s almost as if things were said around the water cooler or perhaps posted in a letter to the editor,” he said. “I think the principles they worked with are applicable to statements made irrespective of the medium.”

    Full article:
    http://www.startribune.com/local/189028521.html?refer=y

    Comments: http://comments.startribune.com/comments.php?d=content_comments&asset_id=189028521&sort=E&section=/local&page_nbr=2&ipp=10

  3. “The financial costs are significant, but money is money, and five years from now, I won’t notice the money I spent on this,” McKee told the newspaper. “It’s been the harm to my reputation through the repeated publicity and the stress.”

    Five years from now, I’ll notice the money I spent on this. 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.

    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.

    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.

    I feel that defamation lawsuits are much too easy for wealthy plaintiffs. If I were to attempt suing a doctor for malpractice, my case would not proceed until I’d obtained an affidavit from another doctor, declaring that the defendant’s actions did not conform to established procedures. In a defamation suit, there’s generally no exit short of a judge’s dismissal order – which can be appealed by the plaintiff. Being called “defendant” is terribly personal, but the civil suit path is totally impersonal. During the three years that I went through depositions, interrogatories, a dismissal hearing, an appellate hearing, and a state Supreme Court hearing; I never once spoke to a judge. At depositions, the plaintiff and I sat opposite each other, while I answered his lawyer’s questions, and he answered my lawyer ‘s questions. We were not to speak to each other.

  4. Twin Cities Business Magazine
    “The Top Lawsuits Of 2013” by Steve Kaplan, December 20, 2013

    Dr. David McKee, a Duluth neurologist, was not laughing when he saw what one former client wrote about him on a doctor-rating website. The reviewer, Dennis Laurion, complained that McKee made statements that he interpreted as rude and quoted a nurse who had called the doctor “a real tool.” As these statements echoed through the Internet, McKee felt his reputation was being tarnished. He sued, and so began a four-year journey that ended this year in the Minnesota Supreme Court.

    Laurion was unhappy with the way McKee treated his father, who was brought to the doctor after he had a stroke. Laurion went to several rate-your-doctor sites to give his opinion. That’s just free speech, isn’t it?

    It sure is, says Laurion’s attorney, John D. Kelly of the Duluth firm Hanft Fride. “The court held that what my client was quoted as saying was not defamatory,” he says. “I do think the Internet makes it much easier for persons exercising poor judgment to broadcast defamatory statements, however… a medium… doesn’t change the quality of a statement from non-defamatory to defamatory.”

    But McKee’s lawyer, Marshall Tanick, of Hellmuth & Johnson, says no matter where it was said, defamation is defamation. “The thing that’s often misunderstood is that this was not just about free speech, but about making actual false statements,” Tanick says. “The problem is today’s unfettered opportunity to express opinion, whether or not the substance of what’s said is true or not. We need some boundaries.”

    But boundaries were not on the minds of the Minnesota Supreme Court. Free speech was. Chief Justice Lorie Gildea wrote, “The point of the post is, ‘This doctor did not treat my father well.’ I can’t grasp why that wouldn’t be protected opinion.” As to referring to the doctor as “a real tool,” Justice Alan Page wrote that the insult “falls into the category of pure opinion because the term … cannot be reasonably interpreted as a fact and it cannot be proven true or false.”

    The takeaway from this case might be the knowledge that behind any rating service lie real people with real feelings. McKee spent more than $60,000 in the effort to clear his name, as he saw it. Dennis Laurion told the Star Tribune he spent the equivalent of two years’ income, some of which he had to borrow from relatives who supplied the money by raiding their retirement funds.

  5. In spite of Supreme Court disagreement and subsequent peer disagreement, Marshall Tanick is STILL saying about David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion: “The thing that’s often misunderstood is that THIS WAS NOT JUST ABOUT FREE SPEECH, BUT ABOUT MAKING ACTUAL FALSE STATEMENTS. The problem is today’s unfettered opportunity to express opinion, whether or not the substance of what’s said is true or not. We need some boundaries.”

    From the American Health Lawyers Association: IN THIS CASE, THE COURT FOUND THE SIX ALLEGEDLY DEFAMATORY STATEMENTS WERE NOT ACTIONABLE BECAUSE THE “SUBSTANCE, THE GIST, THE STING” OF PLAINTIFF’S VERSION FOR EACH OF THE STATEMENTS AS PROVIDED IN DEPOSITION AND DEFENDANT’S VERSION ESSENTIALLY CARRIED THE SAME MEANING, satisfied the standard for substantial truth, did not show a tendency to harm the plaintiff’s reputation and lower his estimation in the community, or were incapable of conveying a defamatory meaning (e.g., when a nurse told defendant that plaintiff was “a real tool”) based on “how an ordinary person understands the language used in the light of surrounding circumstances.”

    From the Business Insurance Blog: THE MINNESOTA HIGH COURT SAID, FOR INSTANCE, THAT DR. MCKEE’S VERSION OF HIS COMMENT ABOUT THE INTENSIVE CARE UNIT WAS SUBSTANTIALLY SIMILAR TO MR. LAURION’S. “In other words, Dr. McKee’s account of what he said would produce the same effect on the mind of the reader,” the court said. “The minor inaccuracies of expression (in the statement) as compared to Dr. McKee’s version of what he said do not give rise to a genuine issue as to falsity.”

    From the Duane Morris Media Blog: The doctor said in his deposition that with regard to finding out if Mr. Laurion was alive or dead, “I made a jocular comment… to the effect of I had looked for [Kenneth Laurion] up there in the intensive care unit and was glad to find that, when he wasn’t there, that he had been moved to a regular hospital bed, because you only go one of two ways when you leave the intensive care unit; you either have improved to the point where you’re someplace like this or you leave because you’ve died.” THE COURT SAID THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE TWO VERSIONS OF THE STATEMENTS ABOUT DEATH OR TRANSFER BY BOTH PLAINTIFF AND DEFENDANT WERE SO MINOR THAT THERE WAS NO FALSITY IN THE WEBSITE POSTINGS. In other words, the court indicated that the allegation about the statement was true.

    In reply to an e-patients.net article “Minnesota Supreme Court sides with patient on social media defamation suit,” Attorney Marilyn Mann said, “I think McKee’s lawyer is incorrect. The case turned on standard principles of defamation law and doesn’t really break new ground.”

    Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism, told the Star Tribune that the ruling stems from “an elementary principle of libel law.” She said that this isn’t a blank check for people to make false factual statements. She said, rather, that it’s “an endorsement that statements of opinion are protected under the First Amendment.”

    According to the Duluth News Tribune, Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney Mark Anfinson, who watched the oral arguments before the Supreme Court in September, said that the justices made the right decision. Anfinson also told the News Tribune, “What this case really exemplifies is not so much legal precepts in libel law, but the impact of the Internet on the ability to publish unflattering comments about people.”

    The Mankato Free Press said in February 2013: “It’s puzzling why McKee’s defamation lawsuit — filed nearly four years ago — was still in court. It’s long been established that people may spout any opinion they want without fear of being sued . . . It’s unsettling that the Appeals Court earlier ruled to allow the suit to continue.”

    In his Technology & Marketing Law Blog, Eric Goldman said on February 4, 2013, “I’ve been tracking doctor v. patient lawsuits for online reviews. . . doctors usually lose or voluntarily drop these lawsuits. Indeed, with surprising frequency, doctors end the lawsuit by writing a check to the defendant for the defendant’s attorneys’ fees where the state has a robust anti-SLAPP law. Doctors and other healthcare professionals thinking of suing over online reviews, take note: you’re likely to lose in court, so legal proceedings should be an absolute last-resort option–and even then, they might not be worth pursuing.”

    Dan Hinmon, the principal of Hive Strategies, wrote for Health Care Communication, on March 21, 2013, “According to the Star Tribune, McKee is now ticked off at the people who posted hundreds more negative comments about him after the story went viral. Incredulously, the story reports that McKee ‘hasn’t ruled out a second lawsuit stemming from these posts.’ Yes, you read that right. After spending ‘at least $50,000 in legal fees and another $11,000 to clear his name online after the story went viral,’ McKee is considering suing the rest of the people who, exercising their right of protected speech, chimed in. I’m speechless.”

  6. The following is taken from a longer article, “Insult And Injury: How Doctors Are Losing The War Against Trolls,” written by Jake Rossen, BuzzFeed contributor, April 4, 2014.

    “The Streisand Effect.” refers to the consequence of inviting even more negative attention by trying to remove negative attention. (The) inspiration was Barbra Streisand’s objecting to a photo of her house in California being made part of a series documenting coastal erosion. Her complaints made the image far more pervasive online than it would have been had she simply ignored it.

    David McKee, M.D., a Duluth, Minn., neurologist, was unaware of this phenomenon at the time he decided to sue Dennis Laurion. Laurion’s father, Kenneth, had suffered a stroke in April 2010; McKee was called in to assess Kenneth’s condition.

    Both McKee and Dennis Laurion agree on substance, if not necessarily intent: The doctor entered the room and expressed that he was initially puzzled the elder Laurion had been moved from intensive care. Usually, McKee said, there are only two ways out of the ICU, and he offered this was the better option. McKee intended for the comment to be lighthearted; the Laurions found it crass.

    McKee asked if Kenneth felt like getting out of bed so he could make an assessment on mobility. He did, though his gown was partially undone in the back. According to the Laurions, McKee was oblivious to Kenneth’s modesty. “His son was right there,” McKee counters. “If he was concerned about the gown, he didn’t get out of his chair to tie it.”

    The family exited the room while McKee conducted a brief examination. Laurion says he returned to find his father partially conscious. His head, Laurion asserts, was “pushed against the railing” of the hospital bed, appearing to be a victim of postural hypotension that resulted in a brief fainting spell.

    Unaware of any resentment, McKee went to the nurse’s station to dictate notes; an irritated Dennis Laurion consulted with his family to see if his impression of the arrogant doctor was real or imagined. At no point did he approach McKee to clear the air. Instead, he fired off a dozen or more letters to a variety of medical institutions, including the hospital’s ombudsman, the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice, Medicare, and the American Medical Association.

    “I just wanted someone with ‘M.D.’ after their name to say, ‘This doesn’t reflect well on you.’” Laurion says. “I wanted someone to say he should tone it down and be more personable.” The dozen letters, he says, were to account for any overlapping bureaucracy — though he admits even his own lawyer questioned the avalanche of paperwork.

    For good measure, he also posted reviews on rating sites including Vitals.com and Insiderpages.com. In addition to critiquing his bedside manner, Laurion quoted a nurse he ran into who once knew McKee. The doctor, she allegedly said, was “a real tool.”

    McKee sued Laurion for defamation. A local Duluth newspaper picked up on the story, favoring Laurion’s interpretation of events. McKee claims the writer called him shortly before close of business Friday to solicit a quote; the story ran the following day. “The article was written like I was being reviewed for misconduct,” McKee says. In fact, no action had been taken against him by any of the organizations Laurion had written to.

    Two events further demoralized McKee. In April 2011, the judge granted Laurion’s motion for summary judgment, ruling his comments were protected free speech. Worse, a user on Reddit.com posted the newspaper story. Almost overnight, dozens of “reviews” popped up on RateMDs.com and other sites with outlandish commentary on McKee, who was referred to as “the dickface doctor of Duluth.” Their software was apparently unable to determine that a surge of opinion over a matter of hours was highly unusual activity for a physician who normally received perhaps three comments in a year.

    “I got a cold call from an online reputation site,” he recalls. “They said, ‘Boy, you’re all over the internet. You want some help?’” One of the physician’s three daughters was handed a printout of an online post in school and ridiculed. She came home crying.

    “The internet creates a scenario where people with most emotional energy behind their opinions will become the most visible,” he says. “But the 7,000 patients I’ve seen since practicing in Duluth that have little or no feelings are invisible.” Convinced Laurion was behind the multitude of postings (though they coincided with the Reddit discussion, a large number allegedly came from Duluth, where Laurion resided), McKee renewed his litigation and his lawyer hired a private investigator to find the nurse Laurion claimed to have run into. She was never located.

    “When he sued me, he opened Pandora’s box,” says Laurion, who denies submitting any posts beyond the initial two. “Whether all of it was proportionate, I don’t know. My intent all along was simply to have someone he respected say to him, ‘When a patient complains, it behooves us to conduct ourselves more circumspectly.’ That was my goal.”

    McKee found no easy way to exit the situation. “You get drawn in,” he says, suggesting his lawyer nudged him into further action. “It’s throwing good money after bad. … I wanted out almost as soon as I got in, and it was always, ‘Well, just one more step.’” McKee appealed, and the summary judgment was overturned. The case, and the measurable impact of being labeled a “real tool,” was now headed for the Minnesota Supreme Court.

    Law professor Eric Goldman, who says he feels physicians are “thin-skinned” when it comes to patient complaints, is confident that litigation is never the answer. “I imagine many lawyers saying that’s not good idea,” he says. “Good lawyers, anyway. McKee made a bad call. There are no winners in defamation lawsuits, and you should advise clients of that.”

    Nearly $70,000 in legal fees later, McKee would agree. He argued his case in front of the Minnesota Supreme Court, which ultimately concluded Laurion’s comments were opinions. And because the court could not rule on the meaning of “tool,” it became impossible to determine whether that was libelous.

    “Referring to someone as ‘a real tool’ falls into the category of pure opinion because the term ‘real tool’ cannot be reasonably interpreted as stating a fact and it cannot be proven true or false,” read the ruling, which was excruciating in its examination of a schoolyard insult and found in favor of Laurion.

    McKee was rated for several years as a top provider in Duluth Superior Magazine, a well-regarded lifestyle publication that recently folded. But his online reputation will outlive that. “From now until the end of time, I’ll be the jerk neurologist who was rude to a World War II veteran,” the physician says. “I’m stuck with it forever.”

    Full article:
    http://www.buzzfeed.com/jakerossen/insult-and-injury-inside-the-webs-one-sided-war-on-doctors

  7. As one of the “trolls” detailed in the above article, I have no issue with the accuracy of the text – at least as it pertains to me – but the tone of the title fails to distinguish sincere complaints about bedside manner from attacks on mental stability, attacks on medical prowess, fake websites, allegations of dangerous injections, and use of multiple identities. The author said “McKee and Laurion agree on substance…”

  8. In a newspaper article, Dr. David McKee of Northland Neurology and Myology, practicing at St. Luke’s Hospital of Duluth, Minnesota, said that money was money, and he wouldn’t feel the impact in five years.

    This month it’s been five years since my review of Dr. McKee. 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. It 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 this 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, and repeated in http://chronicle.augusta.com/stories/2001/08/27/bus_321610.shtml . 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.

    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.

    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.

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