Minnesota Doctor Loses Effort To Sue Patient’s Son For Defamation About His Allegedly Poor Bedside Manners

Dr. David McKee, a neurologist with Northland Neurology and Myology, has failed in his bid to sue the son of a former patient for complaining about his bedside manners, including statements to professional associations and posting comments on the Internet. Sixth Judicial District Judge Eric Hylden wisely dismissed the action.

According to the article below, Dennis Laurion of Duluth complained to the American Academy of Neurology, the American Neurological Association, two physicians in Duluth, the St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services Advisory Committee and St. Luke’s hospital, among others.

His father, Kenneth Laurion, Dennis was shocked by what he viewed as McKee poor treatment of his father. Dennis listed an array of statements that he said were made by McKee including:

1. Angry comments by McKee over the fact that Laurion had been transferred from the Intensive Care Unit to a ward room;

2. Verbal complaint by McKee that he had to “spend time finding out if [the patient] had been transferred or died;”

3. Observations that 44 percent of hemorrhagic stroke victims die within 30 days;

4. Dismissive statements that Laurion didn’t need therapy;

5. Dismissive statements that he did not care about the fact that the patient’s gown was hanging from his neck with his backside exposed;

6. Blaming the patient for the loss of his time; and

7. Generally treating Laurion with a lack of respect or dignity.

These appears to be opinions that are generally not actionable. The line between opinion and fact can be a precious one as shown in reviews of customers and critics of other businesses. The case reminds one of Mr. Chow of New York v. Ste. Jour Azur, 759 F.2d 219, (2d Cir. 1985), where a Chinese restaurant sued a food critic for a negative review. The reviewer made the following allegedly libelous comments:

(1) “It is impossible to have the basic condiments … on the table.”

(2) “The sweet and sour pork contained more dough … than meat.”

(3) “The green peppers … remained still frozen on the plate.”

(4) The rice was “soaking … in oil.”

(5) The Peking Duck “was made up of only one dish (instead of the traditional three).”

(6) The pancakes were “the thickness of a finger.”

The jury found for the restaurant and awarded $20,000 in compensatory and $5 in punitive damages. However, the court of appeals reversed and found that the statements were protected as “opinion.” Notably, the statement about the Peking Duck came closest in the court’s view since it was a factual statement, but the court still found that it would not support the verdict due to the absence of malice:

Hylde wrote: “In modern society, there needs to be some give and take, some ability for parties to air their differences. Today, those disagreements may take place on various Internet sources. Because the medium has changed, however, does not make statements of this sort any more or less defamatory.”

In his suit, McKee alleged that Laurion made false statements including that
According to the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice website, McKee has had no disciplinary actions brought against him.

Dr. McKee seemed intent on responding to the case but giving his own example of protected opinion:

“Dennis Laurion is a liar and a bully and a coward. He knowingly made false and malicious statements about me to a total of 19 different professional and medical organizations, regulatory agencies and websites. He often used false names and attributed his statements to fictitious third parties. I’ll make the observation that every one of those organizations that was required to make an official decision or take an official action either determined that the statement that he made was so ludicrous that it required no response from me at all or decided that his complaint had no merit.”

Source: Duluth News Tribune

Jonathan Turley

23 thoughts on “Minnesota Doctor Loses Effort To Sue Patient’s Son For Defamation About His Allegedly Poor Bedside Manners

  1. This lawsuit, McKee v Laurion, was named among “The top lawsuits of 2013” by “Twin Cities Business Magazine” on December 20, 2013:

    If hamburgers could sue, the courts (like the eater’s arteries) would be clogged. Scroll down any of the dozens of websites that rate restaurants and you’ll see food described in the vilest terms: hog slop, garbage-dump-ready, rat -meat. The proliferation of rating sites shows both that these sites are providing an appreciated service and that people love to give their opinion. But when you move from hamburgers and hotel rooms to rating people, quite often the fun ends.

    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.

  2. Marshall Tanick is STILL saying “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.

  3. This is from an April 4, 2014, Buzzfeed article by Jake Rossen.
    [Excerpt begins]

    David McKee, M.D., a Duluth, Minn., neurologist, was unaware of the Streisand 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.

    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.”

    Dennis Laurion consulted with his family to see if his impression of the arrogant doctor was real or imagined. 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.

    McKee sued Laurion for defamation. A local Duluth newspaper picked up on the story, favoring Laurion’s interpretation of events.

    In April 2011, the judge granted Laurion’s motion for summary judgment, ruling his comments were protected free speech. 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.”

    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.

    McKee was rated for several years as a top provider in Duluth Superior Magazine, but“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.”
    [Excerpt ends]

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