MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A man's online post calling a doctor "a real tool" is protected speech, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The state's highest court dismissed a case by Duluth neurologist David McKee, who took offense when a patient's son posted critical remarks about him on rate-your-doctor websites. Those remarks included a claim that a nurse called the doctor "a real tool," slang for stupid or foolish.
The decision reversed a Minnesota Court of Appeals decision that would have let the doctor's lawsuit proceed to trial.
The opinion, written by Justice Alan Page, said the comments posted by Dennis Laurion don't add up to defamation because they're opinions that are entitled to free speech protections.
"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. ... We conclude that it is an opinion amounting to 'mere vituperation and abuse' or 'rhetorical hyperbole' that cannot be the basis for a defamation action," the justices said.
The ruling also said it doesn't matter whether the unnamed nurse actually exists. McKee's attorney argued that Laurion might have fabricated the nurse, something Laurion's attorney denied. And it said the doctor's objections to Laurion's other comments also failed the required legal tests.
The case highlighted the tension that sometimes develops on ratings sites, such as Yelp and Angie's List, when the free speech rights of patients clash with the rights of doctors, lawyers and other professionals to protect their good names.
Experts say lawsuits over negative professional reviews are relatively uncommon and rarely succeed, partly because the law favors freedom of speech.
This dispute was over how McKee treated Laurion's father, who had suffered a stroke, during a single hospital visit in 2010 that lasted 10 to 15 minutes. Laurion expressed his dismay in several online posts with what he considered the doctor's insensitive manner.
"I'm sure he and his family are very happy with this result," Laurion's attorney, John Kelly, said. "It's been a long and difficult process for them."
McKee's lawyer, Marshall Tanick, said he and McKee plan no further appeals and that they were disappointed with the ruling.
"We feel it gives individuals undue license to make disparaging and derogatory statements about these people, particularly doctors and other licensed professionals, on the Internet without much recourse," Tanick said.
While the decision is not binding in other states, Kelly and Tanick agreed that it might influence how other courts would rule on similar questions. Kelly said lawyers often look at rulings from other jurisdictions when they put cases together, sometimes for leads or guidance.
"Certainly this is a cutting edge issue and I'm sure lawyers and courts in other jurisdictions will pay attention to this decision and give it the weight it deserves," Tanick said.