If a patient's son refers to his father's neurologist “as a real tool” in an online post—even if he attributes the statement to an unidentified nurse—the physician in question does not have grounds for legal action.
That appears to be the message in a Jan. 30 ruling by the Minnesota state Supreme Court, (PDF)
which said six statements made by Dennis Laurion were not actionable because either there was no issue as to whether they were false and they “do not convey a defamatory meaning as a matter of law.”
Laurion was sued for defamation and interference with business
by Dr. David McKee, a Duluth, Minn.-based neurologist, after Laurion posted online comments about McKee's perceived insensitive behavior to his father following a hemorrhagic stroke in April 2010. (The comments were not directed at the medical treatment his father received.)
The case took a twisted path to the state's highest court. A district court dismissed the complaint, but an appellate court ruled in the doctor's favor, stating that six of the 11 statements could be construed as fact and therefore could be actionable. The appellate court also ruled that it was up to a jury to decide whether the statements were true or false and defamatory.
Laurion successfully blocked this action, and the appellate court's ruling went to the state Supreme Court, where arguments were heard this past September.
In the Supreme Court ruling, Justice Alan Page wrote that the court's narrow task was to determine whether “genuine issues of material fact exist and whether the district court correctly applied the law.” He wrote, “We view the evidence in the light most favorable” to Laurion.
Among the statements being ruled on was one in which Laurion said he quoted an anonymous nurse as saying, “Dr. McKee is a real tool!”
The fact that this nurse has never been identified was not important, Page wrote, saying it was an opinion “that is not susceptible to proof and is therefore not actionable.”