I get asked questions about Defamation Suits often enough
that I finally put it on a web page so that I can answer with a link.
It is tempting to say that the odds of patients getting sued for complaining publicly about medicine are not great, but it depends on the people about whom you are complaining. Some are much more prone to do it than others. It’s not like asking what the odds of getting bitten by a shark when you are swimming. It’s like asking what the odds will be if you throw chum in the water while you are swimming.
There is no limit on the amount for which people in medicine can sue patients for defamation. You can lose everything you have and pay 25% of everything you earn for the rest of your life. Bankruptcy does not escape court judgments. They take your property and garnish your wages forever.
Being the one telling the truth means nothing in court. The sex predator nurse who left you with life-ruining injuries can further ruin you life by getting tears in her eyes in court saying that your complaint hurt her feelings. Even if you win, just defending such a suit can cost more than your house.
If they lose you can put their names and faces on billboards and there is nothing they can do. Sometimes they are afraid of that. But what they expect is that you will experience what it costs just to get the initial advice from a lawyer, a lawyer who should explain that you have no idea how injurious the legal process can be to you (frequently reported as being more personally damaging than the event being complained about – even by rape victims) and advise you to pay the plaintiffs a settlement (usually in the tens of thousands of dollars) to get them to back off and then to sign their gag order. That is good advice once they come after you.
However, I was contacted by an older woman in California who was threatened with a suit. She had no lawyer and had no intention of getting one so they sent the legal documents straight to her. They said if she did not sign the documents they sent they would sue her. She thanked them saying that she had been low on toilet paper but now would use the large supply of paper they had provided. She never heard from them again.
Some Have Asked
You cannot be sued for complaining to a legitimate authority, like the police or a state medical board, even though some people in health care will try to persuade you otherwise. You have the right to complain to an authority.
Something to be careful about though is that, even though you cannot be sued for complaining to, say, the police, you can be sued for threatening to complain to the police. Either do it or don’t, but don’t threaten.
If you complain publicly, it doesn’t matter how many people hear your complaint. Communicating it to one other person is grounds for a suit. If you thumbtack a memo about it someplace where one other person potentially could see it legal action against you is possible.
By the way, if your lawyer tells you that you cannot be sued if there were no economic consequences for the person wanting to sue, get a better lawyer. That might be the letter of the law, but it is a letter that has not protected patients in the past.
See also: Freedom of Speech for Patients