$12 Million-Dollar Online Defamation Case Overturned

cartoon-frustrated-man-computer_copyA trial court ruling that awarded Desert Palm Plastic Surgery $12 million in a defamation suit against an unhappy patient has been reversed by the Arizona Court of Appeals.

Sherry Petta, a jazz singer from Scottsdale, AZ, was so upset with her nose and eyelids plastic surgery results that she defamed her plastic surgeons at Desert Palm Surgical Group by starting an attack online website and by leaving negative comments that got her sued.

It’s becoming more commonplace to see negative reviews and comments online that could be best described as verbal hostility. The reasoning is that most people feel anonymous online and, in turn, feel that they can say anything they want without repercussion. While we do have freedom of speech, that does not make it legal to post anything that is a lie to purposely defame someone or a company. There is a definite risk of being sued and this case, among a growing amount of others, is a prime example.

In 2008, Albert Carlotti, MD, and his wife, Michelle Cabret-Carlotti, MD, sued Ms. Petta for defamation, false light and invasion of privacy. After a 10-day trial, the jury returned a unanimous verdict in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded $11 million in actual damages and $1 million in punitive damages. The $12 million verdict in this case was the largest civil jury verdict in Arizona in 2013.

But in January 2015, a state appeals court has overturned the jury’s “extreme” verdict and stated that the verdict “cannot be supported by the damages evidence presented and shocks the conscience of this court.” The judge has also ordered a new trial.

“It’s not over till it’s over,” Ms. Petta, 52, stated, “this is a tremendous day in the last 3 years of my life. This case has already cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.” Both parties have each had to obtain an online defamation lawyer.

Ms. Petta claimed that the results of her plastic surgery with the husband and wife duo resulted in uneven nostrils, an “unreasonable” dent on the side of her nose, and that her nose had been shortened and “turned up” by the surgery. She further stated that her nose also developed residual thickening scar tissue. “I hate the way my nose looks,” she says. “I hate it.”

The laser resurfacing of her face has the same horrific results. Ms. Petta alleged that the procedure burned and scarred her face and caused a severe MRSA infection.

As for a new trial, Ms. Petta says she’s “not interested in additional litigation. But it’s not my choice.” Dr. Carlotti stated that, “[Settling] was my intent 8 years ago and it’s still my intent today, but only if she agrees to stop defaming me. Otherwise, I will defend myself to the ends of the earth.”

Understanding slander, libel, and defamation can be confusing for the average person, but what is clear is the emotional and financial harm that it can cause. Cases like this prove that the digital age is just another avenue to where individuals can still be sued for defamation online by another individual or company. You aren’t safe simply going by an anonymous name. It’s all too easy to be tracked even if you think you’ve done a great job hiding your identity. The best advice is to be honest in your reviews and comments and that way you won’t have to worry about a lawsuit against you.