Minn. SC says online criticisms not defamatory statements

By Nathan Bass | Feb 11, 2013

ST. PAUL, Minn. (Legal Newsline) - The Minnesota Supreme Court has found that six statements posted online criticizing a doctor for "what the appellant perceived as rude and insensitive behavior" are not actionable as defamatory statements.

Justice Alan C. Page wrote the Jan. 30 opinion for the court.

"On April 17, 2010, Kenneth Laurion, the father of Dennis Laurion, was admitted to St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke. On April 19, Kenneth Laurion was transferred from the intensive care unit (ICU) of St. Luke's to a private room.

"The attending physician arranged for Dr. McKee, a neurologist, to examine Kenneth Laurion. Dr. McKee had never met Kenneth Laurion before he examined him on April 19," the opinion states.

There were three family members present in Kenneth Laurion's hospital room when McKee began his examination - Dennis Laurion, his mother, and his wife. In the less than 20 minute examination, McKee made several statements which the Laurions "perceived as rude and insensitive," according to the opinion.

After Kenneth Laurion was discharged from the hospital, Dennis Laurion posted the following statements regarding Dr. McKee on various websites:

"My father spent 2 days in ICU after a hemorrhagic stroke. He saw a speech therapist and a physical therapist for evaluation. About 10 minutes after my father transferred from ICU to a ward room, Dr. McKee walked into a family visit with my dad. He seemed upset that my father had been moved. Never having met my father or his family, Dr. McKee said, 'When you weren't in ICU, I had to spend time finding out if you transferred or died.' When we gaped at him, he said, 'Well, 44% of hemorrhagic strokes die within 30 days. I guess this is the better option.' My father mentioned that he'd been seen by a physical therapist and speech therapist. Dr. McKee said, 'Therapists? You don't need therapy.' He pulled my father to a sitting position and asked him to get out of bed and walk. When my father said his gown was just hanging from his neck without a back, Dr. McKee said, 'That doesn't matter.' My wife said, 'It matters to us; let us go into the hall.' Five minutes later, Dr. McKee strode out of the room. He did not talk to my mother or myself. When I mentioned Dr. McKee's name to a friend who is a nurse, she said, 'Dr. McKee is a real tool!'"

According to the opinion, Dennis Laurion sent letters including substantially the same statements to a variety of medically-affiliated institutions. His purpose in sending the letters was to convey to Dr. McKee that he had exhibited "poor behavior" and to alarm the recipients of the letters who he felt "don't like getting letters like this."

Dr. McKee asserted claims for defamation per se and interference with business in a complaint filed in state district court. The complaint alleged that 11 statements posted online and in letters were defamatory.

The district court granted Laurion's motion for summary judgment and dismissed Dr. McKee's claims with prejudice, concluding that the statements, as a whole, lacked defamatory meaning and that the statements individually were either "protected opinion, substantially true, or too vague to convey a defamatory meaning."

The court of appeals affirmed the district court's dismissal of the interference with business claim but reversed the court with respect to six of the allegedly defamatory statements.

The six statements were:

Statement 1: Dr. McKee said he had to "spend time finding out if you [Kenneth Laurion] were transferred or died."

Statement 2: Dr. McKee said, "44% of hemorrhagic strokes die within 30 days. I guess this is the better option."

Statement 3: Dr. McKee said, "You [Kenneth Laurion] don't need therapy."

Statement 4: Dr. McKee said, "[I]t doesn't matter" that the patient's gown did not cover his backside.

Statement 5: Dr. McKee left the room without talking to the patient's family.

Statement 6: A nurse1 told Laurion that Dr. McKee was "a real tool!"

As to those six statements, the court concluded that (1) the statements were factual assertions and not opinions, (2) there were genuine issues of material fact as to the statements' falsity, and (3) the statements tended to harm Dr. McKee's reputation.

The state's highest court then took the matter on appeal.

"To establish the elements of a defamation claim in Minnesota, a plaintiff must prove that: (1) the defamatory statement was "communicated to someone other than the plaintiff"; (2) the statement is false; (3) the statement tends to "harm the plaintiff's reputation and to lower [the plaintiff] in the estimation of the community,"; and (4) "the recipient of the false statement reasonably understands it to refer to a specific individual," Page wrote.

The Court then looked at statements 1, 2, and 4.

"Viewing the evidence here in a light most favorable to Dr. McKee, we conclude that there is no genuine issue of material fact as to the falsity of Statements 1, 2, and 4," Page wrote.

Page then discussed that in all three of the statements in question, the statements made were closely aligned with statements the doctor made in testimony. Page ruled that statements were each "substantially true" in the light of all the evidence.

Next, the Court looked at statements 3, 5, and 6.

"In the context of libel, a publication may be defamatory on its face; or it may carry a defamatory meaning only by reason of extrinsic circumstances. The question of whether a statement's language reasonably conveys a defamatory meaning is one of law," Page wrote.

"Whether a defamatory meaning is conveyed depends upon how an ordinary person understands the language used in the light of surrounding circumstances. In deciding whether the words bear an innocent meaning, the words must be construed as a whole without taking any word or phrase out of context.

"If the words are capable of conveying a defamatory meaning, it is for the jury to decide whether they were in fact so understood.

"We conclude, as a matter of law, that Statements 3, 5, and 6 are not capable of conveying a defamatory meaning."

Page looked at each statement individually before concluding that each was incapable of conveying a defamatory meaning as published.

"As a final matter, a review of Laurion's online posting as a whole does not change our holding in this case. Given the reasoning underlying our conclusion that the six individual statements at issue are not actionable, it would defy logic to conclude that the posting, when viewed as a whole, is somehow actionable," he wrote.

"Therefore, we reject any argument that the totality of Laurion's statements makes his online posting actionable.

"Because the six statements at issue, viewed individually or in the context of the entire posting, are not actionable, we conclude that the district court properly granted summary judgment in favor of Laurion."

The opinion of the court of appeals having been reversed, the decision of the trial court which dismissed the action on summary judgment, will stand.

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