Does Calling a Colleague Physician an “Idiot” Constitute Defamation?

After his clinical privileges at the hospital were revoked, Dr S filed a lawsuit against numerous individuals involved in the peer review process.

This month we look at the issue of defamation, and whether a statement that a physician is an “idiot” rises to the legal definition of the term.

The facts, as laid out by the Court of Appeals, were as follows: Dr S, a cardiologist, had privileges at a hospital for well over a decade before the hospital’s peer review board voted to revoke his clinical privileges after a 21-month investigation, including a sexual harassment investigation. The physician’s tenure at the hospital had been fraught with tensions, dating back for years, and beginning when he claimed racial motivations were resulting in a disproportionate number of his cases being referred to peer review. Dr S was an Iranian immigrant of Arab descent.

After his clinical privileges at the hospital were revoked, Dr S filed a lawsuit against numerous individuals involved in the peer review process. The defendants moved to dismiss, arguing that they were immune from liability for any claims arising out of peer-review proceedings based on a state statute protecting such peer-review proceedings. The lower court granted most of the motions to dismiss but allowed defamation claims against 2 defendants – the hospital’s head of cardiology, and the hospital’s legal counsel – to stand.

Dr S claimed that the head of the cardiology department, Dr G, had made a false statement when he told another cardiologist that Dr S “is an idiot” who administered blood thinner to “an obvious case of intracerebral hemorrhage.” He claimed that the hospital’s general counsel, Ms D, composed “letters and various other documents and communications” containing “defamatory material designed to destroy his reputation in the medical community.”

Neither defendant denied making the alleged statements. Ms D maintained that she was immune from liability because her actions were done as part of protected peer-review proceedings. Dr G asserted that to the extent that he had made a statement of fact, it was true, and that otherwise it was merely his opinion and therefore not actionable.

As discovery progressed, Dr S asked the court to compel Ms D to disclose the hospital’s investigation of the sexual harassment allegations made against him, his personnel file, and correspondence Ms D sent or received that pertained to him. After an oral argument, the court ruled that the documents were protected from disclosure by the peer-review privilege and that Ms D was not required to produce them.

At the end of discovery, the defendants moved for summary judgment, asking that the case be dismissed against them. At that point, Dr S submitted affidavits from 2 hospital employees, 1 who asserted that she heard Ms D make disparaging remarks about Dr S, including that he is a terrible doctor, a danger to patients, and an idiot. The court struck the 2 affidavits as untimely, and granted summary judgement in favor of the defendants, dismissing the case against them.

The court explained that even assuming that Dr G made the alleged statements to a fellow cardiologist, there was no dispute that Dr S had in fact administered blood thinner to a patient who had an intracerebral hemorrhage. This was never denied by Dr S. Further, the court found that the characterization of Dr S’s conduct as “idiotic” was nothing more than a “subject impression” and was not actionable. Regarding the allegations against Ms D, the court found that Dr S had failed to introduce any admissible evidence showing that Ms D “had made any comments about him, defamatory or otherwise, outside the context of protected peer review activities.” Dr S appealed.