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Monday
Nov292010

Doc Sues Patients for Calling Him 'Dangerous' in Online Reviews

Photo Courtesy - Getty Images(CHICAGO) -- If you don't like your doctor's handiwork, plenty of websites invite you to share your criticism online. But go too far and you could find yourself hit with a $100,000 lawsuit. That's what happened to three women who allegedly used Yelp and Citysearch to review the plastic surgeon who they say botched their breast surgeries.

In response, Dr. Jay Pensler, a Chicago-based cosmetic surgeon, is suing each of them for $100,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. Pensler filed three separate complaints with the Circuit Court of Cook County, Ill., claiming that the three women -- Elaina Bender, Lisa Cuevas, and another woman -- attempted to "ruin the professional reputation of a well respected plastic surgeon, through false and defamatory statements."

In separate comments that have since been removed from the online review sites, the women called Dr. Pensler "dangerous," "ruthless," a "liar" and "horrible," according to Pensler's complaints.

Mitchell Marinello, Pensler's attorney, said they were able to identify the women behind the comments by subpoenaing Yelp and Citysearch to uncover the identifying information. When reached by ABC News, Cuevas said she posted the comments because "I didn't want to see another human being -- male or female -- go through what I went through....I meant it innocently." 

Danielle Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said that intermediary sites like Yelp and Citysearch are under no legal obligation to remove potentially defamatory or harmful comments. Still, she added, they have Terms of Service that they tend to take seriously.

Yelp, for example, tells users that they may not impersonate others and that the website reserves the right to remove posts that violate its Content Guidelines. But while intermediaries can't be sued for defamation, anonymous posters can be unmasked and taken to task for spreading negative, false information on the Internet, she said. Courts have upheld that "liar" can be considered defamatory, she said. And while it's disputed that calling someone is "dangerous" is fact or opinion, it could be argued that "dangerous" is also defamatory, Citron said.

"Potentially, the people writing are trying to protect other women but, at the same time, there are huge stakes for folks whose professions are about trust and professionalism and expertise," she said. Given the nature of the Internet, if falsehoods are spread online, Citron said, "Reputation and lives are ruined and it's searchable and persistent on the Web."

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