Gynaecologist George Buttigieg awarded €1,000 in libel damages over patient's email

Woman who sent an email complaining about the doctor who treated her during pregnancy has been ordered by the court to pay libel damages for defamation

A court has highlighted the importance of prudent use of communication technology as it ordered a mother to pay €1,000 in libel damages to a gynaecologist she defamed in an email, which ended up being widely circulated.

Rebecca Zarb Gauci Maestre had given birth to a healthy child at St James Capua hospital through Caesarean section in 2010. Some weeks after discharge, the child developed breathing problems, which the mother argued was because the child had been delivered at 36 weeks.

In June 2010, she had sent an email to “Parentcraft at MDH”, complaining that the doctor treating her, George Buttigieg, had lied “in a horrible way”, forced her into surgery under general anaesthetic as soon as she went into labour and treating her like a “lump of meat or a cash cow.” The mother was later diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, she said.

The email was widely circulated inside Mater Dei Hospital and eventually ended up in Buttigieg’s inbox.

He had confronted the woman about the email and she had explained that it wasn’t meant to be distributed and that she hadn’t mentioned him by name in the email. Almost a year later, the woman’s lawyer had written to the doctor, giving him a week in which to liquidate “damages caused by professional negligence.” Buttigieg had retaliated by filing the libel case.

Zarb Gauci Maestre argued that the email was distributed without her consent, that the doctor was not identified and that the contents constituted “fair comment.”

Magistrate Francesco Depasquale, in his decision on the matter, highlighted the fact that once an email is sent, it can easily be distributed to the public, or go viral without any form of control. “This means that one must use much more caution when using this means of communication as it could lead to the sender getting into an unforeseen controversy.”

The court observed that the information in the email could easily lead to the identification of the doctor in question by workers in the Obstetrics and Gynaecology department.

On the fair comment defence, the court said that the woman had accused the plaintiff of carrying out an unnecessary c-section, placing the baby’s health at risk and that this had been repeated with other patients, just to make money.

It emerged, however that none of the allegations had been substantiated, “bar through medical suppositions and testimony of family members and their non-professional conclusions.”

The court noted that the child had been born healthy and had remained healthy until her discharge. Documents showed that at no point was the child in any danger. No damage was made to the mother either, who subsequently gave birth to two more children.

“It emerges, therefore, that from what had been alleged by the defendant about the plaintiff, there is absolutely nothing substantially true,” said the court, throwing out the “fair comment” defence.

It was a fact that the woman was diagnosed with birth-related post traumatic stress disorder, which undoubtedly was a factor in her sending the email, said the court, adding that “although this cannot be taken as an excuse, it will be taken as a factor in determining damages.”

The magistrate observed with disappointment the delays in the case, which were caused by plaintiff. In view of this, the court ordered both parties to suffer their own costs.

Finding the email to have been defamatory and libellous, the court ordered the woman to pay George Buttigieg €1,000 in damages.