Yelp, Facebook and Twitter are common digital platforms where customers of brick and mortar stores can air their grievances. But health care providers and institutions are increasingly taking unsatisfied patients to court over negative online feedback.
What's going on?
Expressing frustration publicly is a First Amendment right. But if a patient says something deemed untrue, they can end up being slapped with a lawsuit for defamation, tortious interference, or even invasion of privacy.
And while defamation suits are tough for a plaintiff to win, the playing field can be uneven in the courtroom. Hospitals and doctors have the resources to hire top-notch litigators to protect their images, often leaving individual defendants at a disadvantage.
But being at a disadvantage is also why patients take their complaints online — it's one of the few ways they can give a review of the medical care they received, especially if they've been unsuccessful in pursuing remedies through the legal system.
Ten years ago, retired Air Force colonel David Antoon underwent an operation to have a cancerous prostate gland removed. He claims a mistake was made during the procedure, leaving him incontinent and impotent. Since the surgery, he has fought with The Cleveland Clinic where it was conducted, and the urologist who treated him — but he was unsuccessful in pursuing a malpractice suit.
After posting a negative Yelp review and emailing the doctor, Jihad Kaouk, articles the physician found threatening — Antoon faced felony charges that could have landed him in prison for a year. He reached a plea deal and settled for paying $100 fine, but his case is being used as an example to others.
Suing a patient is also a considerable risk for a health care provider. Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman told the New York Daily News, "Going to court draws negative attention to the doctor trying to sue. Almost invariably when a doctor sues a patient, the patient fights back with a malpractice suit or takes the case to the medical board and files a complaint about the doctor's practices. The doctor can end up losing their license."
So as a rule of thumb, attorney Ryan Lorenz told USAToday, "Make sure what you're saying is true — it has to be truthful."