Dentist and reviewer battle it out in court

By Rabia Mughal, DrBicuspid.com contributing editor

March 18, 2009 -- The case of a Foster City, CA, dentist who is suing the parents of a patient for a review they posted online is now in the hands of a Superior Court of California judge.

Lawyers for both sides presented their arguments in court Tuesday.

“This is defamation. If people are allowed to do this, you might as well throw away the defamation law.”
— John Ter Beek, lawyer for Yvonne
     Wong, D.D.S.

Yvonne Wong, D.D.S., sued the parents of a young patient after the father posted a negative review on Yelp.com. Dr. Wong contends that the review defames her by implying that she didn't inform the boy's parents about alternatives to the use of amalgam and nitrous oxide and didn't spot other cavities needing treatment.

The key issue in this case is whether the review stepped over the line from discussing a topic of public interest to defamation.

Dr. Wong's lawyer, John Ter Beek, thinks it does.

He argued that the review did not serve public interest on the topics of amalgam or nitrous oxide use and only defamed Dr. Wong.

He called the use of amalgam fillings a "supposed controversy" and noted that even the ADA approves its use.

Reviewer Tai Jing's lawyer, Mark Goldowitz, argued that his client's review merely informed people that it is unnecessary to use mercury or nitrous oxide for dental procedures. It is a matter of public interest because his clients did not know other options were available until they went to another dentist, he stated.

In an interview with DrBicuspid.com following his court appearance, Ter Beek said that in fact Dr. Wong provided Jing's wife with a dental material fact sheet containing information about mercury fillings. The law requires dentists to discuss such matters, he added.

"Now they are saying that they were not told," said Ter Beek. "This is defamation. If people are allowed to do this, you might as well throw away the defamation law."

Goldowitz reiterated that his client's review did not cross the line.

His purpose as a parent through that post was to tell other people that some dentists don't use amalgam fillings or nitrous oxide at all, he told DrBicuspid.com.

Defamation is when provably false statements are made, and that is not the case here, he added.

There is a controversy surrounding amalgam fillings, and new cavities were found by the child's new dentist, he said. It's all true.

With regard to the issue of defamation, Judge William Elfving asked Goldowitz to clarify exactly who wrote the review, since both Tai Jing and his wife Jia Ma are named in Dr. Wong's lawsuit. Goldowitz stated that Jing wrote the review and that his wife had no part in it whatsoever.

However, Ter Beek noted that Jia Ma accompanied the child to most of the dental appointments and that when she came home she had told Jing what happened, which means they worked together to defame the dentist.

Goldowitz dismissed any charges of conspiracy.

Jing was the one who was present at the appointment when Dr. Wong administered the nitrous oxide and mercury fillings, and there is no reason to believe that just because they are married she was involved in a conspiracy, he said.

Jing ultimately removed the review from Yelp.com -- leave a one star rating up to indicate his dissatisfaction with the dentist -- when he found out that someone had complained because he did not want to be mixed up in a controversy, his lawyer told DrBicuspid.com.

Goldowitz said this case violates free speech.

"That you can get sued just for putting up your opinion has a chilling effect," he said.

Judge Elfving is now considering the arguments. If he doesn't grant the original anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) motion, Dr. Wong's attorney will have a right to appeal. If he does approve it, Jing's attorney will have the same right.

Copyright © 2009 DrBicuspid.com

 

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