Update (April 29, 2015): Another M.D., another Minnesota defamation claim, and another case that appears to have prolonged and aggravated the plaintiff’s reputational wound rather than healed it. In the linked decision, the state of Minnesota won reversal of the trial court’s denial of its motion for summary judgment. The defamation claim of plaintiff, Dr. Michael Harlow, has gone down in flames (unless he takes it to the Minnesota Supreme Court and wins another reversal, though the Supreme Court review did not work out very well for Dr. McKee).
Update (March 12, 2013): Undeterred by the recent failure of Dr. McKee’s defamation claim, Dr. Michael Harlow, represented by Minnesota litigator, Gregg Corwin, is having a go at a defamation claim of his own (MPR coverage is here).
Aside from the fact that the cases both have M.D. plaintiffs, the two cases are very dissimilar. Still, given the huge threats and challenges of defamation cases, is this really a battle you want to wage? Maybe so. After the break, a reminder that Minnesotans do recognize that reputations, while hard to place a definitive dollar value on, nevertheless do have value and, possibly, high value.
Original post (November 10, 2011): (under subject line, “A Naturopathist Can Have a $900,000 Reputation?”): This week, the Star Tribune covered a $1,000,000 defamation jury verdict obtained by plaintiff Susan Anderson from a Dakota County jury in a trial presided over by Judge Richard Spicer. The verdict included $100,000 for lost wages and $900,000 for damage to the reputation of the plaintiff, a naturopathist.
The Star Tribune wrote that “Naturopathy is an alternative medicine based on the belief that vital energy or vital forces help the body regulate such things as metabolism, reproduction and growth.” According to Wikipedia, according to the American Cancer Society, “Available scientific evidence does not support claims that naturopathic medicine can cure…any…disease…[N]o studies on naturopathy as a whole have been published.”
Anderson, represented by Patrick Tierney, was a Hudson, Wisconsin “doctor” of naturopathy, who had allegedly “de-prescribed” anti-anxiety medication to one Cheryl Blaha. The patient, Cheryl Blaha, then claimed to KSTP in interviews that she had tried to commit suicide as a result of being weaned from the medicine by Anderson.
KSTP was represented by well-known Twin Cities media lawyer, Paul R. Hannah.
Minnesota Litigator predicts appeal and reversal of this jury verdict. Without the benefit of attending trial or seeing the evidence, hazarding a prediction is obviously a stretch. On the other hand, the law’s protections of media’s First Amendment rights and the requirement of evidence of “malice,” that is, evidence that KSTP “made the statement from ill will and improper motives, or causelessly and wantonly for the purpose of injuring the plaintiff,” make the jury verdict hard to swallow.
Is it a stretch to suspect that KSTP might have had a good faith belief that it was reporting a newsworthy event — an “alternative medicine” provider counseling an ill person to go off of her prescribed medication with near-hazardous consequences? If that was the scenario, that would be hard to reconcile with the required standard of malice.
And, finally, is a $900,000 verdict for “compensatory damages” to “reputation” defensible on appeal? Aren’t compensatory damages supposed to be tied to reality in some way? Understandably, our legal system is challenged to put values on some harms, such as “pain and suffering,” and presumably appellate courts are quite deferential to juries’ valuations of such harms, which are so difficult to quantify. On the other hand, courts use “remittitur” to reduce even these awards and it seems that this, at a minimum, could play out in this case.
It seems noteworthy that the jury refused to award any punitive damages against KSTP.
[Post-script: Minnesota Litigator’s efforts to find out how this case was ultimately resolved were unsuccessful.]