Doctors win redress in online defamation suits
■ A former patient is ordered to pay $12 million to an Arizona cosmetic surgeon, while an appeals court rules that a Minnesota neurologist's case may continue.
By Alicia Gallegos — Posted Feb. 20, 2012
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During the three years Albert Carlotti III, MD, DDS, spent battling online attacks by a former patient, the cosmetic surgeon lost hundreds of patients, dropped 35 pounds and was forced to sell his home.
At one point, Dr. Carlotti and his wife, Michelle Cabret-Carlotti, MD, DDS, considered relocating their Scottsdale, Ariz., practice to another country to escape the damaging Internet claims.
"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," Dr. Carlotti said.
After years of legal battles, Dr. Carlotti won a $12 million defamation verdict against the former patient, Sherry Petta, in December 2011.
The decision is one of two court victories won recently by doctors who say they were defamed online.
An appeals court on Jan. 23 ruled that Duluth, Minn., neurologist David McKee, MD, may sue a former patient's son for defamation, reversing a dismissal by a trial court.
In the Arizona case, Dr. Carlotti sued Petta in 2008 after learning she had posted on websites that he had disfigured her face. Dr. Carlotti performed several procedures, including a rhinoplasty, on Petta in 2007.
Petta also created her own website and claimed the doctor was not board-certified and was under investigation by the state medical board, according to court records. Petta obtained phone numbers for Dr. Carlotti's patients and called them to assert the same allegations. She complained to the medical board about the Carlottis' practice, according to court documents.
Records show that the doctors have received no disciplinary actions by the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners. They are certified by the American Board of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery.
After a three-week trial, jurors returned the $12 million verdict less than a day after the proceedings ended, said Matthew J. Kelly, Dr. Carlotti's attorney.
Derron Woodfork, Petta's attorney, said his client did not make false statements about Dr. Carlotti. He said her website resembled the thousands of other doctor review sites on the Internet. Petta plans to appeal.
"This was never a case about Ms. Petta trying to destroy [the Carlottis]. It was a case about Ms. Petta trying to defend herself," Woodfork said.
The ruling is a triumph for doctors who often feel powerless when patients take to the Web and write untrue posts without facing consequences, Kelly said.
"It gives physicians hope that somebody went out there and actually took this head-on," he said. "A lot of physicians and professionals feel constrained by their professional obligations to keep quiet. This gives them hope that there is a change in attitude over what will be protected by the First Amendment."
Minnesota doctor heads to trial
In the Minnesota case, a trial court ruled that online comments by Dennis Laurion, the son of one of Dr. McKee's former patients, were not defamation but rather an "emotional discussion of the issues."
Dr. McKee appealed. He accused Laurion of writing false posts about his interaction with Laurion's family, including a charge the doctor did not treat his father with dignity after a stroke.
In its opinion, the Minnesota Court of Appeals said the trial court was wrong to determine all of Laurion's statements were too vague to carry defamatory meaning. Some of Dr. McKee's claims are valid and should be considered by a jury, the court said. The court remanded the case to the lower court for further review.
Laurion has asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to review the appellate decision, said his attorney, John D. Kelly. But if a jury hears the case, John Kelly said he is confident it will determine Laurion's comments were not defamatory.
Dr. McKee's reputation was besmirched by Laurion's Internet postings, said Marshall Tanick, the doctor's lawyer. "I think people feel they are unrestrained on the Internet and they think they can get away with anything. I think this decision shows there are limits to what you can say."
Dr. Carlotti, meanwhile, is relieved his legal ordeal is finally over, but he said it will take time to restore his practice. "It's amazing what one person with some basic computer skills can do," he said.
"They can really attack you in a fashion where you can't defend yourself. As I stand here in the ashes of my victory, the focus is on how do I rebuild and how long is it going to take?"