Am I to blame if I defame? – Dentistry Magazine

Published in the Dentistry Magazine 02.04.09 Opens external link in new window

Have you heard the one about the patient who comes to see you and tells you that she has had a raging toothache ever since she was treated by Ivor Abscess a week ago?  You reply, “Oh not Mr Abscess, he is a right ….”

Let me stop there.  Criticising a fellow dentist can get you into severe difficulties.  If there is objective evidence that one of your neighbouring dentists is performing substandard work and you have reasonable grounds for making a complaint against that dentist then there are proper avenues that can be pursued.  However, what you must not do, as not only is it totally inappropriate, but it can also lead to an appearance as a Defendant in the Civil Courts, is to make a statement about that other dentist’s skills outside the realms of an official complaint.  Unfortunately, as the above example shows, it is all too easy to make a derogatory comment without pausing to think about the consequences.

In the example, what would happen if the patient concerned happens to be in the local pub that evening and says to a friend “Oh you should have heard what my dentist said about Mr Abscess…..”, if Mr Abscess just happens to be standing alongside her waiting to order his gin and tonic at the bar?  The answer of course is that, in a couple of days time, a Letter of Claim arrives on your doorstep from Messrs Greedy, Rich & Sons Solicitors, alleging that you have defamed their client, Mr Abscess, and they want an immediate apology, payment of their extortionate costs and a payment of significant damages to reflect the fact that what you thought was a private word to one individual was broadcast around the Dog and Duck at happy hour, when all Mr Abscess’ staff and the majority of his patients were enjoying their two for one cocktails.

Unfortunately, loose talk costs money.  All the ingredients of the tort of defamation can easily be proved.  In the confines of your surgery you publisheddefamatoryreferring  Further, as the original publisher of the slander (spoken as opposed to written defamatory statements) you are responsible for any further publications of the defamatory words.    Accordingly, the moral of the story is think before you speak.

Mark Shaw is a Partner in the Dental Team at Hempsons.  He has extensive experience of acting for dentists in clinical negligence claims and also proceedings before the General Dental Council.  He also provides advice to individuals on all aspects of the law surrounding the practice of dentistry and in particular the law of defamation and all aspects of criminal law.