Two Scottsdale, Ariz. doctors have been awarded $12 million from a former patient they accused of defaming them in online postings.
The Maricopa County jury awarded the money this week to Dr. Albert Carlotti and his wife, Dr. Michelle Cabret-Carlotti. The Arizona Republic reports the verdict was against Scottsdale singer Sherry Petta, who has performed in jazz clubs in Arizona and California.
Petta says she’s disappointed in the verdict and plans to appeal. She also says she doesn’t have the $12 million.
She had a nose job and other cosmetic treatments in 2007 but later blamed the Carlottis for a serious infection she developed. She then set up a website critical of the Carlottis.
The Carlottis, who operate Desert Palm Surgical Group, sued Petta for defamation within weeks of the website’s appearance in 2008. A judge issued a temporary restraining order against Petta and ordered her to take down the site immediately.
Petta complied, but she did not stop her criticism. She filed a complaint with the Arizona Medical Board and appeared at board meetings to air her complaints. She also posted items about the Carlottis on doctor-review websites.
Derron Woodfork, a Scottsdale attorney representing Petta, said she spoke out at the public meetings to defend her reputation after being sued by the Carlottis.
The Carlottis said her web postings included false information and harmed their medical practice, contributing to a steep drop in the number of patients.
“I went from a $4.5 million practice to seeing just two patients each week,” Albert Carlotti said.
He said several other patients also lodged complaints with the Medical Board against his practice, but no complaint resulted in disciplinary action from the board.
Albert Carlotti said he was put in a bind many doctors face. Patients can post anonymous reviews online, but doctors can’t respond in most cases because they must abide by patient-confidentiality rules under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.
“Anybody with a computer and some basic skills can be judge and jury and literally destroy someone’s life and business willfully,” Carlotti said.
Matthew Kelly, Carlotti’s attorney, said the case shows that even Internet posters are not protected when they make defamatory statements.
“The jury sent this defendant a message that she needs to stop what she was doing. They didn’t believe her side of the story,” Kelly said.