San Francisco chiropractor sues patient over negative online comments

December 12, 2008

A billing dispute between a chiropractor and his patient escalated into a lawsuit early this year with the chiropractor accusing the patient of defamation for comments posted about the solo practitioner on an online ratings site.

A billing dispute between a chiropractor and his patient escalated into a lawsuit early this year with the chiropractor accusing the patient of defamation for comments posted about the solo practitioner on an online ratings site, according to court documents.

In February, Steven Biegel, DC, filed a complaint in San Francisco Superior Court alleging that comments by his patient, Christopher Norberg, exposed Biegel to “hatred, contempt, ridicule, and obloquy,” according to the suit. Norberg posted his criticism on San Francisco-based website where consumers can post their reviews of restaurants, bars, hair stylists, physicians, and most other types of businesses.

In the posting, Norberg accuses Biegel of charging him $500 for two chiropractic treatments that he believed was going to cost $125, according to court documents. In Biegel’s suit, he claims Norberg understood the lower fee was only for patients who pay at the time of service, not those who bill the treatment to their insurance.

Biegel reportedly attempted to settle the dispute and asked Norberg to remove the online posting, but was refused. As of press time, Norberg had apparently altered his original comments available here. He also created a web page about the lawsuit, available here. In the lawsuit, Biegel’s attorney alleges the chiropractor has “suffered loss of his reputation, shame, mortification and hurt feelings all to his general damage.” He is asking the court for unspecified general and punitive damages.

The parties are scheduled to meet next month to discuss a settlement of the suit, according to the court. Biegel did not respond to an email or phone message left for him at his office.

Steven Kern, a health care attorney with Kern Augustine Conroy & Schoppmann  in Bridgewater, New Jersey, represented a dermatologist in a similar case involving a hair transplant patient who created a web site criticizing the physician. The dermatologist wanted to sue the patient, but Kern advised against it.

“A doctor suing a former patient for writing nasty things is going to generate a lot more publicity than a silly little web site,” says Kern, who noted that disputes like this turning into litigation are still rare. “[Biegel] would’ve been better off having 10 of his friends write glowing reviews.” Note: The vast majority of the chiropractor’s online comments are overwhelmingly positive.

Before involving an attorney, a better solution for physicians faced with a disgruntled patient writing negative online comments is to resolve the dispute with the patient personally -- on the phone or in-person, posting your own comment on the site, or, as Kern suggests, flooding the site with positive testimonials from satisfied patients.

Medical Economics explores this issue in more detail in its December 5, 2008 issue available here. If you would like to learn how to fight back against a health plan’s negative online quality rating, click here.