Doctor Defamation: Can OR Outbursts Be Defamatory?

doctor defamation case study: operating room outbursts
Doctor Defamation: What chance do surgeons have at winning a slander lawsuit over operating room outbursts said under extreme stress?

Doctoring is intensely stressful. When medical professionals flub, people lose limbs, contract diseases or die. In the life- and-death heat of an emergency room operation, doctors have been known to fling invectives like monkeys fling food at safari vehicles. Sometimes apologies are exchanged, and all is forgotten. Other times, the arguments result in defamation lawsuits.

Recently, one such doctor defamation claim made its way through the Virginia courts.

Emergency Room Surgery Leads To Doctor Defamation Lawsuit

Several years ago, two doctors lost a patient after a failed emergency operation. In the wake of the unsuccessful lifesaving attempt, one doctor criticized the other. Support staff heard the fight, which included carps like:

  • He could have made it with better resuscitation;
  • This was a very poor effort;
  • You didn’t really try;
  • You gave up on him;
  • You just euthanized my patient.
  • You determined from the beginning that he wasn’t going to make it and purposefully didn’t resuscitate him.

Ultimately, the chastised doctor filed a $2 million doctor v. doctor defamation lawsuit.

Courts Disagree On What Is and Is Not Potentially Defamatory

A trial judge initially dismissed the case due to qualified privilege. The qualified privilege defense applies to “communications between persons on a subject in which the persons have an interest or duty.” An opinion espoused by a medical professional about a given case can sometimes be considered qualified privilege.

The Supreme Court of Virginia, however, partially reversed the trial court. First, it determined that two of the statements – “he could have made it with better resuscitation” and “you determined from the beginning that he wasn’t going to make it and purposefully didn’t resuscitate him” – weren’t opinions, and, as such, could be considered in a defamation trial.

Ultimately, the State’s Supreme Court remanded the doctor defamation case back to a trial court.

As to the privilege defense, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that good faith intentions don’t always factor into qualified immunity cases; malice, however, usually does.

Shortly after the court issued its ruling, the two doctors issued a joint statement.

It read (in part):

“The parties have settled the case amicably and confidentially. All parties agree that no one did anything medically wrong or improper during or in connection with the medical procedure or treatment in question. The parties also agree that the events since that medical procedure should have been handled differently.”

This Doctor Defamation Ruling Is Significant

Why is this ruling significant in terms of “qualified privilege” as it relates to doctor defamation cases? It proves that not everything said about a medical situation is protected speech. Physicians, nurses and medical assistants do need to be careful.

Chat With A Doctor Defamation Lawyer About Your Situation

Attorneys at Kelly / Warner have worked with both patients and doctors on slander and libel lawsuits. Our lawyers have a clear understanding between acceptable, protected speech and defamation. We can probably tell you, after hearing all the facts of your situation, whether or not you have a viable claim.

Ignoring a bad situation doesn’t make it go away. Speak with an experienced doctor defamation lawyer; tell them your situation.

Let’s chat. It may ease your mind – and you may just discover that the solution is easier than you imagined.