Allegations of defamation
Originally published June 2002 / Reviewed July 2013
Defamation is the offence of bringing a person into undeserved disrepute by making false statements.
The CMPA will generally provide legal assistance and indemnification when a member is alleged to have made a defamatory statement during the provision of a legally or ethically obligatory report or statement to representatives with a corresponding duty to receive such reports. An example of a legal obligation is reporting suspected child abuse to the appropriate provincial or territorial authorities. An example of an ethical obligation is reporting a colleague who is not following established research protocols to the project or facility authorities.
What about situations when, in the conduct of medical professional duties, defamation occurs outside of an obligatory reporting responsibility or occurs inadvertently?
For example, in physicians' day-to-day work they may identify a perceived injustice, lack of professionalism, or breach of clinical standards. As an ethical professional, they attempt to address the issue. It is not uncommon to hear from physicians that they appropriately sent a letter of concern to someone in the immediate clinical supervisory chain. Should a defamation action arise at this stage, the CMPA would generally provide assistance. However, if members decide "for good measure" to send a copy of the letter to the organization's board of directors, the provincial health minister, a member of parliament, their Facebook "friends," the media, or police, and a defamation action ensues, CMPA assistance would not generally be provided.
Comments can be misinterpreted and have unintended consequences. If, in the context of physicians' medical professional work, they inadvertently make oral or written statements that are alleged to be defamatory, assistance would generally be available.
The following suggestions may help member physicians avoid defamation actions:
- Avoid impulsive, malicious verbal or written commentary (i.e. sleep on it).
- Think about how the recipient might feel and react to a statement that could be defamatory.
- Be aware of obligatory reporting responsibilities under regulation or legislation.
- Address any concerns, after appropriate reflection, to the next immediate level in the applicable administrative structure.
- Be very cautious about using email and social media — which can be distributed widely without the sender's knowledge — for communicating sensitive issues.
- Do not send copies to parties outside the applicable administrative structure.
When in doubt, contact the CMPA for assistance.