Doctor Defamation Case Study: Brain Surgeon v. TV Station

doctor defamation of charachterA Texas brain surgeon may finally be granted the defamation trial he has been pursuing for nearly a decade. If he wins, media conglomerate, Viacom, could end up coughing up a whole lot of dough in this doctor defamation lawsuit.

Doctor Sues TV Station For Defamation

In 2004, Byron Neely’s life seemed to be going well. A brain surgeon with a thriving practice, ostensibly, Neely’s situation could be characterized as impressive. That all changed, however, when CBS affiliate KEYE-TV ran a 7-minute investigative report about the good doctor.

Accusations Levied In The KEYE-TV Report That Prompted The Doctor Defamation Lawsuit

In the piece, reporter Nanci Wilson highlighted Paul Jetton’s and Wei Wu’s patient experiences with Neely. According to the report, after Jetton went under Neely’s knife, Jetton allegedly had to undergo 12 corrective surgeries as a result of Neely’s work. More tragically, Wei Wu, another patient, was told by Neely that he had life threatening cancer. Presumably to escape a painful, slow death, Wu committed suicide. The medical examiner who performed Wu’s autopsy, however, said Mr. Wu was cancer free. Wei Wu’s wife brought a malpractice lawsuit against Neely on behalf of her son, but it was thrown out over procedural errors.

In addition to the patients unsettling stories, Wilson’s investigative report touched on probation restrictions the Texas Medical Board imposed on Neely. Namely, the board cited the doctor for self-prescribing medication. Talk also swirled about Neely’s alleged “hand tremor” problem.

TV Shaming Leads To Decline of Medical Practice

A damning excoriation indeed, after the KEYE-TV piece aired, Neely’s practice went into a tailspin. Clients cancelled, the practice crumbled, and eventually the bank foreclosed on Neely’s home. Presumably in an attempt to salvage his career and life, Neely filed a defamation lawsuit against Viacom – the parent company of KEYE-TV — and Nanci Wilson, the reporter.

Trial & Appellate Courts Rule Against Doctor, Supreme Court Gives Him The Green Light

Unfortunately for Neely and fortunately for Viacom, the trial court and appellate court ruled in favor of the defendants. Earlier this month, however, the Texas Supreme Court reversed the decisions in a 5-3-1 vote. Justice Eva Guzman, writing for the majority, explained, “We agree with Neely that a person of ordinary intelligence could conclude the gist of the broadcast was that Neely was disciplined for operating on patients while using dangerous drugs or controlled substances.” Since Neely provided an affidavit that he had “never performed surgeries while impaired by drugs,” the majority of the  bench ruled “that there is a fact issue regarding the truth or falsity of the gist that Neely was disciplined for operating on patients while taking or using dangerous drugs or controlled substances.” As such, Neely was essentially given the green light for a trial.

However, not all the justices agreed with the majority decision.

Chiming in for the 3 dissenting justices, Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson wrote, “If the news report is damning, it is because it contains substantial truth. The doctor performed brain surgeries during a time he was ingesting seven narcotics, eight other medications and alcohol. He suffered hand tremors during the period he operated on patients’ brains.” In other words, since supreme courts deal with questions of fact, the three dissenting judges did not see grounds for substantial misrepresentation of the case facts. Or as Chief Justice Jefferson explained, “Here, the literal truth is as caustic as the gist, and the gist reasonably depicts literal truth.”

Are you a doctor in need of a defamation attorney? Get in touch with Kelly Warner Law to begin the conversation.

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