Doctors’ defamation scuffle not so amusing

Posted Wednesday, May. 29, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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campbell The case of the growling gastroenterologists at Texas Tech could have been a House episode.

Dr. House hands off patients to Dr. Wilson when he comes on call, but Wilson isn’t happy with House’s actions in the transfer and says so in writing. Wilson expresses “disapproval in the strongest words possible of the lack of professionalism and disregard for patient care that you exhibited this morning.”

House ratchets things up and writes to the department chair, the dean of medicine and even an accreditation entity about Wilson’s “reputation for lack of veracity.” House says Wilson “deals in half truths, which legally is the same as a lie.”

If you’ve ever watched House, Hugh Laurie’s medical drama now in reruns, you know this would be an ironic, even hilarious gag, given that Wilson’s the more ethical physician and House’s cardinal rule about human nature is that “everybody lies.”

But in real life, Drs. Easwaran P. Variyam and Joseph E. Hancock weren’t laughing.

Variyam was chief of the gastroenterology division of the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock, and Hancock was an associate professor when they started sniping in 2006. Variyam wrote Hancock about his “lack of professionalism.” Hancock countered with a resignation letter questioning Variyam’s veracity.

So Variyam sued Hancock for defamation, claiming he was entitled to damages for loss of reputation and mental anguish because he suffered sleeplessness and anxiety.

Laughed out of court, you say? Guess again.

Hancock got a court ruling that he wasn’t responsible for Variyam’s removal as division chair. Still, the trial court said Hancock’s statements about “reputation for lack of veracity” and “deals in half truths” were defamatory on their face.

Hancock claimed his assertions were substantially true. The jury decided otherwise and said Hancock should pay Variyam a total of $175,000: $30,000 for loss of past reputation, $30,000 for loss of future reputation, $15,000 for past mental anguish, $15,000 for future mental anguish and $85,000 in exemplary damages (jurors said Hancock made the statements with malice).

An appeals court upheld the verdict.

But leave it to the Texas Supreme Court to have the last laugh.

In a May 17 ruling, the court unanimously voted that no damages should be awarded.

Hancock’s statements “did not injure Variyam in his profession as a physician by ascribing that he lacked a necessary skill peculiar or unique to the profession,” Justice Eva Guzman wrote.

Citing examples from one of the legal profession’s trusty guidebooks, the Restatement (Second) of Torts, she said that it’s one thing to call a physician a quack, incompetent or dishonest in his fees, but another to question his general truthfulness.

While saying a physician consorts with harlots might not justify a lawsuit, falsely claiming he makes improper advances to patients would.

Besides not having a claim for defamation on its face, Guzman said, Variyam didn’t prove he suffered any actual injury: “There is no evidence of mental anguish because evidence that Variyam experienced some sleeplessness and other anxiety does not rise to the level of a substantial disruption in his daily routine or a high degree of mental pain and distress.”

Somewhere, it will probably turn up as an example of the business-friendly Texas Supreme Court being hostile to plaintiffs and second-guessing juries because Variyam wound up losing.

Reputation is one of an individual’s most valuable possessions. That’s why the law lets people sue over false statements that cause them lasting harm.

But just imagine if every time a couple of professionals start name-calling they can get a Texas jury to tell one of them to pay the other a six-figure sum.

I’m a staunch defender of the tort system’s value in righting wrongs. But on its face, this case looks like it went too far.

Linda P. Campbell is a Star-Telegram editorial writer. 817-390-7867 Twitter: @LindaPCampbell

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