Surgeon May Have Libel Case Over News Report

     (CN) – A CBS affiliate must face defamation claims from a brain surgeon whose practice collapsed after it reported on his use of self-prescribed drugs, the Texas Supreme Court ruled.
     Byron Neely sued Viacom, KEYE-TV and reporter Nanci Wilson based on a seven-minute investigative report that the CBS-owned station aired in 2004.
     Wilson interviewed Neely’s patient, Paul Jetton. Neely placed a shunt into Jetton’s brain to drain fluid, but the site became infected and Jetton required 12 more surgeries. Neely settled the subsequent lawsuit with Jetton.
     Wilson moved on to discuss the case of Wei Wu. After Neely removed Wu’s brain tumor, he alerted the patient to his observation of small deposits of cancerous material on Wu’s brain during surgery. After learning this, Wu killed himself.
     The medical examiner did not detect any melanoma in his autopsy, however. Wu’s ex-wife sued Neely on behalf of their son, but the case was dismissed on procedural grounds.
     Wilson also said the Texas Medical Board had placed Neely on probation for self-prescribing medication and that the board noted Neely’s history hand tremors.
     The TV report included a quote from a board representative who Neely could still comply with its order and take drugs prescribed by another doctor.
     Jetton told the reporter that he found Neely’s punishment “deplorable.”
     “I mean if it was another profession, uh, the guy would be in jail,” Jetton said.
     Neely claimed that his medical practice fell apart after the report aired. His patients canceled their appointments, his referrals and income decreased, and his house went into foreclosure, according to the complaint.
     The trial court granted the defendants summary judgment, and an appellate panel affirmed, but a five-justice majority of the Texas Supreme Court concluded recently that Neely may be able to show that the facts of his case were misreported.
     “We agree with Neely that a person of ordinary intelligence could conclude the gist of the broadcast was that Neely was disciplined for operating on patients while using dangerous drugs or controlled substances,” Justice Eva Guzman wrote for the majority.
     Neely swore in an affidavit, however, that he had “never performed surgeries while impaired by drugs,” according to the June 28 ruling.
     “Based on Neely’s responsive evidence, we hold that there is a fact issue regarding the truth or falsity of the gist that Neely was disciplined for operating on patients while taking or using dangerous drugs or controlled substances,” Guzman wrote.
     Three dissenting justices said they would have affirmed summary judgment.
     “If the news report is damning, it is because it contains substantial truth,” Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson wrote. “The doctor performed brain surgeries during a time he was ingesting seven narcotics, eight other medications and alcohol. He suffered hand tremors during the period he operated on patients’ brains.
     “Here, the literal truth is as caustic as the gist, and the gist reasonably depicts literal truth,” Jefferson added.
     Justice Nathan Hecht did not participate in the court’s decision.

%d bloggers like this: