Drs. Fuste and Vanden Hoek, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit referred to below, were employed as…

Drs. Fuste and Vanden Hoek, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit referred to below, were employed as pediatricians by Riverside Healthcare Association, Inc. (RHA), for approximately five years until a dispute between the plaintiffs and RHA caused both physicians to terminate their employment with RHA. After opening a new medical practice, Drs. Fuste and Vanden Hoek filed a defamation lawsuit in a Virginia court against RHA, Riverside Hospital, Inc., and Riverside Physician Services, Inc. Also named as defendants were Peninsula Healthcare, Inc., and Healthkeepers, Inc. The plaintiffs based their defamation claim on false statements supposedly made about them after they left their employment with RHA. According to their complaint, thestatements were made by employees of RHA and the other defendants. The statements, supposedly made to patients, agents of other hospitals, and credentialing officials at area hospitals, charged that Drs. Fuste and Vanden Hoek were “unprofessional” and “uncooperative,” that they had “left suddenly” and “abandoned their patients,” and that there were “concerns about their competence.” In addition, the plaintiffs alleged in their complaint that a caller to Healthkeepers was told that Drs. Fuste and Vanden Hoek would “never be put back on the Healthkeepers list of providers because of the way they left Riverside.” When parents and grandparents of the plaintiffs’ former patients inquired about the plaintiffs’ whereabouts, RHA employees said that Drs. Fuste and Vanden Hoek had “left suddenly,” that they “were not able to work in the area,” that “their whereabouts were unknown,” and that callers “should find another pediatrician.” Finally, the plaintiffs alleged in their complaint that an RHA employee contacted a person who was contemplating working for Drs. Fuste and Vanden Hoek and told her that the plaintiffs’ new practice “would be immediately shut down the day it opened” and that if she took a job there, she “would never have a future job with Riverside.” The defendants filed demurrers to the plaintiffs’ complaint. A Virginia state court judge sustained the defendants’ demurrers and dismissed the plaintiffs’ complaint. In remarks from the bench, the judge observed that Drs. Fuste and Vanden Hoek had not stated a valid defamation claim because “the defamatory statements as alleged, on balance, appear to be opinions by and between people involved in the health care field.” The plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia. Did the trial judge rule correctly in sustaining the defendants’ demurrers on the ground that the statements were nonactionable opinion?

 

 

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