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Jury sides with hospital in mother’s defamation claim

A mother and her minor child lost a $5 million defamation suit against a health care provider and its CEO over company social media posts before a Greene County jury.

In March 2020, CoxHealth had offered free telehealth appointments for uninsured individuals to be virtually tested for COVID-19 with a free coupon code “COVID.” But plaintiff Samantha Cherry tried to sign up for a telehealth appointment for her child C.L.’s swimmer’s ear, which was not part of the offer, and did not check the free coupon code. When a customer service representative asked Cherry to complete the form and use the code, Cherry went to Facebook.

In her initial post, Cherry claimed that the company “just asked me to mark COVID next to my son’s name,” as if to say that CoxHealth had tried to count her son as a COVID-19 patient.

CoxHealth and its CEO Steve Edwards issued posts clarifying incorrect information in Cherry’s posts. On Aug. 2, 2020, Edwards tweeted, “It was a public service. I regret anyone would think it is part of a conspiracy theory,” along with screenshots of the actual offer and of Cherry’s Facebook post.

In a Greene County lawsuit, Cherry alleged that Edwards’ tweet was cause for defamation and libel. She and her child, C.L., also demanded removal of the tweet.

Bryan O. Wade of Husch Blackwell represents CoxHealth and Edwards. He said that at trial, they played the recorded customer service phone call between Cherry and a CoxHealth representative to show that Cherry’s posts misrepresented the situation.

“I think the jury was able to contrast the actual call with what she posted,” Wade said. “To the extent they thought it wasn’t an accurate representation, I think that’s probably fair.”

Wade said that Cherry’s posts were public rather than private, and she continued to drive the discussion despite claiming rights as a private citizen.

“We tried to show that she was continuing this discourse about this issue publicly,” Wade said. “Because she had made the allegation that her information was limited to her friends on Facebook and it was a private issue concerning her son’s swimmer’s ear.”

The plaintiff dismissed C.L.’s claim after presenting evidence.

The trial court directed a verdict in favor of defendants on all counts except for defamation. The jury returned a 12−0 verdict in favor of the defendants.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Kristi Fulnecky, did not respond to a call requesting comment.

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Defense verdict

Defamation

Venue: Greene County Circuit Court

Case Number/Date: 2031-CC01024/Feb. 16, 2022

Judge: Michael Cordonnier

Plaintiffs’ Expert: Joseph Haslag, Columbia (accounting, damages, economics)

Defendants’ Experts: Kristen Rosati, Phoenix, Arizona (health care privacy); Robert Sherwood, Leawood, Kansas (internet privacy)

Last Pretrial Demand: $5 million

Last Pretrial Offer: $0

Caption: Samantha Cherry v. Steve Edwards and CoxHealth

Plaintiffs’ Attorney: Kristi K. Fulnecky, Fulnecky Law, Springfield

Defendants’ Attorneys: Bryan O. Wade and Ginger K. Gooch, Husch Blackwell, Springfield

 

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