The Digital Media Project at Harvard University tracks lawsuits filed against patients and others for online comments. Its website includes seven such cases filed over the past five years or so, though it’s not a comprehensive list. In some, patients took down their negative comments. In others, judges dismissed the suit, ruling that patients’ comments were protected under the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.
In one 2011 case, Dr. Aaron Filler, a neurosurgeon, sued a former patient in a Los Angeles court for posting negative comments about him on rating sites such as RateMDs.com, including that he posed an unusually high risk of death to patients. A judge dismissed Filler’s suit, deciding that the patient was exercising free speech on a public issue, and ordered the doctor to pay $50,000 in legal fees.
Doctors feel they are at a disadvantage in responding to negative reviews because medical privacy laws forbid them from discussing a patient’s care in public — a limitation that hotels, restaurants, and other often-rated businesses and professionals don’t face. They also worry that their explanations could be used against them in a malpractice suit — although a new Massachusetts law protects doctors’ apologies.