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The Raleigh News and Observer has reported a “man bites dog” story. A dental patient is complaining that her dentist told her she needed an expensive dental treatment that a later dentist said was unnecessary. However, it is not the patient suing the dentist, but rather the dentist suing the patient. The patient made a complaint both with the N.C. Dental Society and the N.C. State Board of Medical Examiners, as well as making complaints in an earlier Troubleshooters column with the newspaper. About one week later, she found herself the Defendant in a defamation lawsuit.
A legal case for defamation requires a statement (in writing for libel, orally for slander), that is false, and that is communicated to a third party causing damage. For private persons, it is enough to show that the person making the false statement failed to use ordinary care to determine if the statement was true. Public persons, such as politicians, must show that the person knew the statement was false or had serious doubts that the statement was true. Depending on the type of statement, the impact it caused, and the level of intent or maliciousness of the defamer, the person being defamed can recover nominal damages ($1), actual damages (for example, the dentist has alleged that other patients have canceled appointments because of the statements made), and punitive or punishment damages.
While the dentist has as much right as anybody to protect himself legally against false and malicious statements that injure his business, the timing of his suit seems somewhat suspect. By filing the suit before the patient's complaints were considered by the Dental Board, it looks as though he is trying to gain leverage over this patient, who may or may not be able to afford legal counsel, to get her to drop the complaints. He may be particularly concerned as the Dental Board seems to be a bit more aggressive in governing their members than the Medical Board.
--Bradley A. Coxe is a practicing attorney in Wilmington, NC who specializes in Personal Injury, Medical Malpractice, Contract and Real Estate disputes and all forms of Civil Litigation. Please contact him at (910) 772-1678.