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Diet doctor defamation suit 'more about ego than injury', court rules

01/21/2015 04:19 EST | Updated 03/23/2015 05:59 EDT
An Ontario judge pulled no punches as he ruled that "ego" and "turf warfare" were at the heart of a lengthy defamation case that pitted a high-profile doctor with weight-loss clinics across Canada against a little-known Toronto physician.

In the lawsuit, which took just over six years to work its way through the legal system, the judge ruled in favour of Dr. Stanley Bernstein and his business but emphasized that a "minimal degree of injury" had been caused to the diet doctor by his competitor.

"This case is more about ego than injury," Ontario Superior Court Justice Graeme Mew wrote in his lengthy, and at times scathing, ruling. "It is more about turf warfare in the competitive world of diet medicine than about reputation."

Bernstein claimed Dr. Pat Poon defamed him when he portrayed the Bernstein Diet as a program akin to starvation, which caused muscle wasting and eventually led to weight gain rather than loss. Poon also called Bernstein "commercial" and not interested in curing disease, the suit claimed.

The comments were found in a book written by Poon, online extracts of that book and in a television interview given by the doctor, who has four offices in the Greater Toronto Area that treat patients with obesity-related issues.

While Mew ultimately awarded Bernstein $10,000 in general damages, he declined to award aggravated or punitive damages.

"I was unconvinced by Dr. Bernstein's evidence of the impact of Dr. Poon's words. His claim that he had lost sleep over Dr. Poon statements, that they are constantly on his mind, and had interfered with his lifestyle (in ways that he did not particularise) struck me as at best exaggerated," Mew wrote.

"Dr. Bernstein is a tough competitor. He is no stranger to public criticism or to litigation ... My very firm impression is that Dr. Poon's criticisms were at worst an irritant."
   Poon had defended himself by saying his statements were nothing more than "an expression of opinion about a commercial product" that did not defame Bernstein and his clinic. He also claimed the lawsuit was a strategic action aimed at stifling criticism of Bernstein's "cash cow."

The interests of both Poon and Bernstein were not lost on Mew.

"This dispute arises at one of the many intersections between business and profit on the one hand, and health and wellness on the other," Mew wrote. "Both the plaintiffs and the defendant are, financially, the beneficiaries of the burgeoning needs and demands of an increasingly obese population."

Mew meticulously worked his way through Poon's statements, which Bernstein claimed were defamatory, and found there were only two instances in which that was the case.

The first involved Poon's statements about vitamin injections administered as part of the Bernstein Diet.

"Whether he admits it or not, he is telling his readers that the Bernstein Diet claims to increase a dieter's metabolic rate, that the use of injections forms part of this claim and that as this is not possible, dieters are being misled," Mew wrote. "A reasonable person would think less of Dr. Bernstein as a result of Dr. Poon's comments."

The second instance involved comments made by Poon during a television interview in which he called Bernstein's clinics "weight-loss centres" that "help people lose weight on a commercial basis," unlike doctors like himself whose "goal is to cure illness."

Mew found that Poon's words in that situation were insulting and implied Bernstein's clinics had no medical component.

Apart from those two instances, Mew found the multitude of Poon's other statements were in fact simply his views on diet and nutrition.

Mew also criticized the time it had taken to conclude the case and the lengthy written submissions.

"After all that, it may seem anticlimactic that the end result is an award of $10,000," he wrote.

"It is for others to decide whether the substantial public resources that have been made available to enable this dispute to be adjudicated are proportionate to the rights and interests that were at stake."

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