Defamation, libel, harassment, and causing emotional distress are some of the charges patients who launched online negative review campaigns are defending themselves against in court

Healthcare systems, surgeons, family practitioners, clinical laboratories, anatomic pathologists—none are immune to receiving negative online reviews from patients who believe they’ve been damaged by their caregivers. And these reviews can have such an impact on practice revenues, doctors and hospitals have begun suing patients for damages caused by harmful online reviews. And they are winning.

Several notable cases involve high-profile healthcare systems. One such lawsuit involved the Cleveland Clinic. A patient who claimed a 2008 prostate surgery left him impotent and incontinent due to negligence on the part of the surgeon launched a negative campaign that spanned a decade, USA Today reported.

David Antoon, a retired Air Force Colonel, filed a malpractice lawsuit against urologist, Jihad Kaouk, MD, and the Cleveland Clinic. Antoon alleged Kaouk was not present in the operating room during his surgery, even though he insisted that only Kaouk perform the procedure. Antoon also claimed the Cleveland Clinic’s urology department did not have the proper credentials to operate the robotic device used during his surgery.

In addition to filing the lawsuit, Antoon complained to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the State Medical Board of Ohio.

However, Antoon also vented his frustrations on social media, as well as sending e-mails to Kaouk, which the doctor felt were threatening and made him concerned about the situation escalating. “What would be next—showing up at my door?” Kaouk asked during the criminal trial against Antoon. “That’s what we feared.”

Jihad Kaouk, MD (above), a urologist with the Cleveland Clinic, giving testimony at Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court during a lawsuit involving patient David Antoon, a retired Air Force Colonel. Kaouk and the Cleveland Clinic prevailed in that lawsuit and the State Medical Board of Ohio closed a five-year investigation into Kaouk without reprimanding him. (Photo copyright: USA Today.)

Antoon posted unfavorable online comments about Kaouk for a decade. The urologist eventually petitioned the court, which granted him a civil stalking protective order against Antoon. It banned Antoon from contacting the doctor. Nevertheless, the day after that order was granted, Antoon posted another bad review about Kaouk on Yelp and urged people to avoid Kaouk when seeking medical care.

Antoon was later arrested on felony charges of menacing by stalking, telecommunications harassment, and violating a protection order. He faced up to one year in prison if indicted. In addition to spending two days in jail, he paid $40,000 for a defense attorney and a $50,000 bond after being arrested. He also agreed to pay $100 as part of a plea deal.

Above is David Antoon (left), Col USAF Ret, and Don Malarcik (right), an attorney with Malarcik, Pierce, Munyer, and Will in Akron, Ohio. Malarcik argued that “the Yelp review doesn’t violate the protection order because Antoon did not make direct contact with Kaouk,” Cleveland.com reported. (Photo copyright: USA Today.)

Other Lawsuits Against Patients Involving Social Media

Joon Song, MD, PhD, a New York City area gynecologist sued patient Michelle Levine over critical reviews she left about his practice on several online sites. Though Levine removed her posts from the sites after being sued, Song wants her to pay $1 million in legal fees and damages. The doctor accused Levine of defamation, libel, and causing emotional distress. Sound familiar?

Two Scottsdale, Ariz., doctors—Albert Carlotti, MD, and Michelle Cabret-Carlotti, MD, DDS,—successfully sued patient Sherry Petta for defamation after she posted negative statements about the doctors online. After filing a complaint with the Arizona Medical Board and clashing with Carlotti over access to her medical records, Petta posted unfavorable reviews about the practice on several online sites and created a website to warn others about Carlotti. The doctors claimed the statements Petta made were untrue and portrayed them in a false light. A jury agreed and awarded the doctors $12 million, which was later vacated on appeal.

Cleveland cosmetic surgeon Bahman Guyuron, MD, sued a former patient after she posted adversarial reviews on several online review sites about her dissatisfaction with a nose job. The patient, who remains unidentified, alleges that Guyuron acted in an untrustworthy and unprofessional manner, that she received no follow-up care, and that Guyuron urges people to post erroneous positive reviews online. She also claims that there was no informed consent to the procedure and that her nose is now twice as large as before.

Guyuron is seeking monetary damages, an injunction against the patient to prevent her from posting negative reviews about him online, and an order to remove all existing statements about him from the Internet.

Clinical Laboratories Vulnerable to Negative Reviews

Healthcare is complicated and positive outcomes can never be guaranteed. When patients do not get satisfaction by complaining to the doctors and facilities, they may seek other ways to be heard. And negative comments made on social media and online review websites can harm the reputations and businesses of physicians and medical facilities.

“It would be great if the regulators of hospitals and doctors were more diligent about responding to harm to patients, but they’re not, so people have turned to other people,” Lisa McGiffert, former head of the Consumer Reports Safe Patient Project, told USA Today. “This is what happens when your system of oversight is failing patients.”

However, Ryan Lorenz, Petta’s attorney warns consumers to be aware of the consequences of posting critical online reviews, especially if they post factually inaccurate information. “Make sure what you are saying is true—it has to be truthful,” he told USA Today.

Similar situations can arise in the clinical laboratory industry as well. There were multiple postings on Yelp in 2014 and 2015 by patients criticizing blood-testing company Theranos regarding discordant test results they’d received from Theranos’ lab, which Dark Daily covered in multiple e-briefings.

Trust is the hardest thing to earn, the easiest thing to lose, and once gone, can be impossible to get back. Clinical laboratories are just as susceptible to negative reviews as hospitals and doctors.

Worse yet, labs can be drawn into lawsuits simply because they service the hospital systems and caregivers involved. Preparing in advance for this possibility should be on every clinical laboratory manager’s do list.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Doctors, Hospitals Sue Patients Who Post Negative Comments, Reviews on Social Media

Doctor Sues Patient for $1 Million for Posting Negative Reviews Online

I Wrote a Negative Yelp Review—and it Made My Life a Nightmare

Hospital Sues Over Facebook Post and Picketing

Previously High-Flying Theranos Provides Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups with Valuable Lesson on How Quickly Consumer Trust Can Be Lost

Federal Appeals Court Rules Yelp Not Responsible for Bad Reviews; Labs Advised to Examine Their Online Presence

Online Negative Reviews Can Threaten Clinical Laboratories Not Prepared to Address Feedback or Manage Their Internet Presence