Minn. Supreme Court finds negative online comments were opinions, not defamatory facts

Lilly Chapa | Libel | News | February 5, 2013

The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled that negative online reviews about a local neurologist were not defamatory and are protected under the First Amendment.

In a reversal of a lower court’s decision, the state Supreme Court determined that Dennis Laurion’s online statements about his father's neurologist, Duluth doctor David McKee, were not defamatory because they are considered opinion and are not capable of harming the doctor’s reputation.

“The First Amendment protects statements of pure opinion from defamation claims,” according to Justice Alan Page’s decision.

Laurion's father was treated by McKee after he suffered from a stroke in 2010. Laurion wrote negative comments on several healthcare provider review websites about how McKee interacted with the family and that a nurse called the doctor “a real tool.”

McKee sued Laurion later that year, accusing him of defamation and interference with business for the online posts. Laurion promptly deleted the posts. But McKee continued with the complaint. A district court dismissed McKee’s lawsuit, but the appeals court remanded the defamation portion of the case to the district court. Laurion appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court.

“Referring to someone as ‘a real tool’ falls into the category of pure opinion because the term ‘real tool’ cannot be reasonably interpreted as stating a fact and it cannot be proven true or false,” Page wrote.

John D. Kelly, Laurion’s lawyer, said the court addressed Laurion’s statements thoroughly and in a very straightforward way.

“They studied the statements using the well-established principles of defamation law in Minnesota,” Kelly said.

Each state decides what the plaintiff in a civil libel suit must prove and what defenses are available to the defendant. The court must weigh protection of a person’s reputation against the First Amendment values of freedom of speech and expression.

Minnesota courts consider whether a statement is defamatory depending on whether it was stated publicly, if it was false, if it refers to a specific individual and if that individual’s reputation is harmed, according to the court's opinion.

Kelly said he hopes Laurion’s case will teach future plaintiffs to be careful before suing someone for their online comments.

Laurion said in an interview that he never thought his reviews would lead to a three-year lawsuit.

“I just wanted [McKee] to acknowledge my comments,” Laurion said. “I never thought I’d get this kind of backlash.”