When veterinarians sue clients for harmful reviews

Cases in Australia, US show payoffs, pitfalls of taking legal route

September 11, 2020 (published)
By Ross Kelly

Dr. Allen O'Grady
Photo by Connor O'Grady
Dr. Allen O'Grady won a defamation case against a client whose complaints about him on social media prompted harassment of the Australian practitioner and his family. In the photo, O'Grady holds a sugar glider named Pixie, who was raised by a nurse in his practice.

After dog owner Carrie Barlow took to social media to aggressively accuse Dr. Allen O'Grady's practice of overcharging, it didn't take long for harassment of the veterinarian and his family to begin.

Within 24 hours of her posts going live, the Albion Veterinary Surgery near Brisbane, Australia, received a torrent of abusive emails and phone calls from people fired up by Barlow's complaints.

O'Grady's wife, Lindy, in her role as practice manager, copped much of the vitriol, which included threats to burn the clinic down. The O'Gradys' young son wasn't spared: He told of being heckled at school by another child for supposedly having dishonest parents.

Barlow was unhappy about the size of an AU$427 (US$310) bill she'd received on Oct. 4, 2014, for the treatment of her dog, Valentine, who had been attacked by other dogs and needed stitches. After complaining to the practice and remaining unsatisfied, she published seven posts later that month on Facebook, Twitter and the review site True Local. In them, she said she'd been "grossly" overcharged. Barlow also took aim at O'Grady personally, claiming that he was "grumpy" and "should not be dealing with people or animals." (O'Grady was not in the practice on the day of the treatment, which was carried out by a colleague.)

When O'Grady's lawyers first threatened to take legal action against Barlow, she amended two posts but not in a manner that sufficiently addressed O'Grady's concerns. After Barlow rejected a request for a public apology and AU$6,300 (US$4,577) in compensation, he filed a claim for defamation, on Dec. 8, 2014.

Meanwhile, the abuse of O'Grady's staff and family intensified to the point that graffiti was sprayed on the practice's walls and O'Grady's automobile license number was posted publicly online. "She spread the nastiness far and wide on social media and people acted like a pack of feeding dogs," O'Grady told the VIN News Service in a recent telephone interview.

Eventually, the O'Gradys decided to sell the Albion surgery, in March 2015, to corporate consolidator National Veterinary Care and concentrate on a second practice they owned nearby, the Eatons Hill Veterinary Surgery. "We were getting sick of running between the two, but the abuse we received was the catalyst to sell the Albion one because of all the stress it was creating," O'Grady said.

In June, more than five years later, O'Grady won the defamation case against Barlow in a Brisbane court that awarded him AU$25,000 (US$18,162) in damages, plus AU$4,244 (US$3,083) in interest. Last month, the court also ordered Barlow to pay his legal costs, which O'Grady said ran well into six figures. The payment is pending.

The landmark ruling ends a grueling ordeal for the O'Gradys and acts as a beacon for a global veterinary profession that often feels underappreciated. It also serves as a warning to clients tempted to defame practitioners online.

According to a survey in 2017 of 16,000 veterinarians in the United Kingdom, 85% said they'd experienced some form of intimidation and felt threatened by a client’s language or behavior. The survey, conducted by the British Veterinary Association, also found that cost of treatment was one of the most common reasons for threatening behavior, with 98% experiencing pressure from clients to waive fees or accept late payment. 

Barlow (whose surname is now Curtis) declined to comment for this article. Court documents show that she had apologized to O'Grady for the harassment he'd received and any harm caused, claiming it was an unintended consequence of her posts. The court, however, found that she had not apologized for the publication of the defamatory content in those posts.

'We started getting death threats'

One veterinarian pleased to hear of the Brisbane court ruling is Dr. Jane Croft, who lives more than 9,000 miles away in the United States. She, too, was embroiled in a defamation suit against a client, whose social media posts had likewise preceded a whirlwind of hatred. Croft's case didn't end as fruitfully as O'Grady's.

Croft requested to use a pseudonym for this article and declined to disclose her exact location and some details of her case in order to protect her and her family's safety.

In a telephone interview, Croft said that a few years ago, a client had complained that a veterinarian working at her practice hadn't done enough to save his dog. The reviews that he and his followers subsequently posted on social media snowballed to the point that people claimed Croft and her husband had stood over the dog laughing while they let it die. In reality, Croft said, neither veterinarian was inside the practice that day.

"We started getting death threats," Croft said. "We had people picketing in front of our home with signs saying 'Murderers.' "

She recalled receiving letters in her mailbox with threats to burn down her house and break her and her husband's legs. Strangers would follow her in her car and scream at her through the window.

Sounding clearly distressed, Croft described going with her husband to the police and being told that because no actual violence had been committed, there was little the police could do. The couple then pleaded with the client to delete his posts. When he didn't, they decided to sue for defamation. The client counter-sued for malpractice.

"That's when things went from bad to horrible," Croft said. Some media outlets, she said, started running sensationalist stories about the defamation suit. The death threats now came every day. Strangers would bash on her children's bedroom windows in the middle of the night.

Fearing for the children's safety, Croft and her husband settled with the client, sold their practice and left town. "We had a solid case but in the eyes of the public, we were guilty," Croft said. "Even if we had had our day in court and won, I don't think it would have mattered because people had already made up their mind."

Balance between free speech, reputation protections, differs from country to country

How much latitude veterinarians have to sue clients for defamatory reviews on social media is determined by the relevant laws in their jurisdiction. Australia, for instance, has some of the strictest defamation laws in the world, while the U.S. has stronger protections for freedom of speech via the First Amendment.

Still, that doesn't mean that people in the U.S. can get away with saying anything they like, according to Lyrissa Lidsky, dean of the University of Missouri School of Law and an expert on defamation law.

"U.S. libel law strikes a balance between free expression and protecting reputation that is different than the balance struck by other countries, but social media users who publish false factual statements are not immune from liability," Lidsky told VIN News. "A social media user who negligently posts defamatory falsehoods about a veterinarian or that veterinarian’s business may face liability."

Libel cases related to bad reviews on Yelp and other sites have been growing in frequency, Lidsky said, because of the popularity of such sites and the powerful influence the reviews can have on consumer decisions. Defamation suits recently have been filed by various types of business in the U.S., including medical practices, theme parks, flooring installers and air-conditioner suppliers.

Not all businesses or individuals who sue emerge triumphant in court. An important judgment was made last December when Elon Musk, the billionaire owner of electric car company Tesla, successfully defended a defamation suit brought by a British cave explorer whom Musk had called a "pedo guy" on Twitter. Musk said the comment was never meant to be taken literally and apologized for posting the remark.

"The Elon Musk case illustrates that the U.S. may sometimes be more liberal in labeling an allegedly defamatory statement as opinion, which covers statements that are hyperbole that a reasonable audience would not interpret as factual," Lidsky said. "Name-calling typically is not defamatory, although name-calling that implies false and defamatory facts can sometimes lead to liability."

Even in countries such as Australia with stricter defamation rules, various factors must be considered before embarking on legal action. For one, defamation suits by companies can be brought in Australia only by companies with fewer than 10 full-time employees. Negative reviews aren't considered defamatory if they are proven to be true or are honest opinion "based on proper material."

In O'Grady's case, Barlow was particularly upset about being charged AU$32.50 (US$23.61) for antibiotics, which she claimed to have found online later for a far cheaper price. The AU$427 (US$310) bill included a consultation fee and expenses for surgery, suture materials, anesthetic, an antibiotic, painkiller and fluid administration. Barlow pleaded the defenses of truth and honest opinion but in her ruling, Judge Suzanne Sheridan noted that the price of the antibiotics included an AU$14 (US$10.17) dispensing fee plus postage. Sheridan also noted that no evidence was adduced by Barlow "as to the cost of running a vet practice, how those costs are or should reasonably be recovered by charges for the services offered or what might be a reasonable markup for pharmaceuticals."

Mark Martin, the attorney who represented O'Grady in court, told VIN News that anyone thinking of suing should consider whether more harm will be done to their reputation by taking legal action. "Defamatory publications are usually transitory in nature and 'yesterday's news' within a short period of time," Martin said. "Issuing proceedings for defamation often only enlivens and republishes the defamatory comments."

At the same time, Martin said, defamatory posts on social media can remain on the web for some time. "My experience with social media defamation is that the publisher very rarely expresses an opinion but rather, attacks the business with harmful statements," he said.

"As can be seen in [O'Grady's] case, the defendant embarked upon a serious attack on the credibility of an experienced and reputable veterinarian for no proper reason, whom she had never met. When I cross-examined the defendant, she had no real insight into the effect of what she published and whether there was ever a proper basis for her conduct."

For his part, O'Grady lets out a laugh when asked whether other defamed veterinarians should pursue legal action. "If you spoke to my wife, she'd say, 'Don't,' " he said. "I wanted to take it on, she didn't want me to do it, and it created a bit of disharmony between the two of us," he said. "So it has its drawbacks, quite apart from the financial impact of it."

Still, O'Grady said he's been pleased to hear that his case may be helping others in the veterinary community. "A lot of vets have told me that it's died right down now," he said. "The nastiness that they're getting is diminished because of the fear of someone fighting back."

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