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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.
Opinion vs. reputation
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.
'I thought it was my right'
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."
Laurion, whose father survived the stroke and is now 87, said he feels vindicated -- not in the sense that he's proven the things he said, but that he had the right to express his opinion of a single encounter on a website designed to rate doctors.
He regrets the cost of the litigation -- in his case, the equivalent of two years' income, he said, some of which he had to borrow from relatives who dipped into their retirement funds.
"I regret that it became as painful as it was," Laurion said. "I don't think I regret having posted the comment. I thought at the time that it was my right to do so."
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921