Australian Associated Press
August 11, 2021: A scorned patient has been ordered to pay $450,000 for an “appalling and entirely unjustified and unjustifiable” negative internet campaign designed to destroy a Sydney plastic surgeon’s reputation, a judge has found.
Catherine Cruse set about posting a series of “sustained, far-reaching and virulent” attacks on the internet over eight months in 2018 after Dr Warwick Nettle declined to operate on her.
A federal court judge on Wednesday said the effect of the false posts caused “extreme” damage to both the surgeon’s emotional and mental state and his prior “impeccable” reputation.
His five-star Google rating dropped to 3.5 stars after the first two posts were published.
The highly regarded Bondi Junction surgeon had declined to operate on Cruse after her former surgeon called him and cautioned about operating on her.
That call and decision were “entirely professionally appropriate and justifiable” and undeserving of adverse comment, let alone the “scandalous and misleading criticism that was subsequently meted out”, Justice Michael Wigney said.
The subsequent posts were “full of falsehoods, gross misrepresentations of the facts, entirely unjustified criticisms of Dr Nettle”, the judge said.
The comments appeared to have been calculated to “inflict maximum damage” on the surgeon’s professional reputation.
The court orders include costs and a permanent ban on Cruse publishing any further untrue defamatory statements.
But Nettle may never see a cent of the substantial compensatory and aggravated damages he’s due.
Despite her prolific online activities, the respondent couldn’t be located and had “effectively disappeared”, Wigney said. She filed no defence and appeared at no hearings. Private investigators were employed in the extensive effort to locate and serve her with court documents. But it appeared she deliberately evaded service and concealed her whereabouts, the judge said.
The court in 2020 permitted service via email and ordered she be alerted to that fact by phone.
Despite Cruse’s continued silence, Wigney was satisfied she was behind the four publications and that each carried the defamatory meanings, as claimed by Nettle.
Two posts remain online, hosted by defamatory complaint websites whose operators make extortionate demands of those wishing to remove adverse reviews.
A since-removed post on a third website included images falsely claiming to be results of botched surgeries by Nettle.
The post also featured headshots of the surgeon with the phrases “the devil himself”, “inhumane medical care”, “abuse of power” and “compulsive liar” superimposed on them.
The court heard direct evidence about Nettle’s patients seeing the posts, including one who said she started to have doubts about continuing treatment.
When she saw the post with images of botched surgeries, she was particularly disturbed and felt that she could no longer trust Nettle, the judge heard.
The surgeon also gave evidence about the great distress and anxiety the posts caused over an extended period of time. He also worried about the safety of his staff and family.
“To refer to the emotional trauma wrought on Dr Nettle by the publications as ‘hurt to feelings’ is to rather understate the effect that the publications had on his mental and physical health and wellbeing,” the judge said.
Disclaimer: This story was originally published by the Australian Associated Press.