Bad Review? Don’t Sue. Here’s Why.

There’s no denying that “like and share” culture has a dark side for eye care practices. The ungoverned, Wild West nature of the Internet assures that someone who wants to hurt your practice’s online reputation can do the damage quickly, easily and cheaply.

Think it can’t happen to you? These three cases will make you think again:

  • A Dallas, TX ophthalmologist whose patient published false allegations to multiple websites, including one called LasikFraud.com.
  • A San Jose, CA ophthalmologist whose patient posted reviews calling him a “crook” and a “fraud,” accusing his practice of re-selling drugstore reading glasses as custom lenses.
  • An Illinois ophthalmologist whose patient published online comments calling him a “one stop chop shop,” a “butcher,” and claimed an illegal laser was used to perform surgery.

In each case, the physician sued the patient, with mixed results. These three incidences are specific to eye care, but dozens of similar cases have been tried in multiple specialties and the outcomes aren’t encouraging.

A lawsuit is usually a losing proposition for healthcare providers (and really, anyone else) attempting to defend their online reputations. A 2014 report from the Fordham Law School Center on Law and Information Policy details the legal climate surrounding libel in the virtual world. The authors found that “the current legal landscape is, generally, of little help to victims [of online defamation].”

Why? Defamation is notoriously hard to prove for several reasons:

  • Opinions, no matter how ill founded or insulting, can never be defamatory. A defamatory statement must be proven factual.
  • Internet speech is protected under the First Amendment, with few exceptions.
  • The speaker must be proven to have acted negligently or with malice.
  • You must have suffered damages caused by the defamation, and not any other reason.

The money, time, and effort required to win a lawsuit against a patient are usually just not worth it. If you lose (which is statistically likely) you may be held responsible for the patient’s legal fees. Plus, the patient can always decide to retaliate by bringing a malpractice suit or a complaint against your license.

And don’t even consider suing a website, social media site, web hosting company, or Internet service provider. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides these intermediaries with broad immunity from liability stemming from user-generated content.

Of course, there are exceptions, and if a slew of fake reviews or libelous statements have truly affected your livelihood, a lawsuit may be the best option. In that case, have a frank discussion with your attorney about your desired outcome, the odds of achieving that outcome, and what it will cost you in time and money.

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