Topic: Science & Technology

The Case of the Unmasked Flea

We are still sorting out what constitutes unethical behavior on the internet, but the Case of the Unmasked Flea didn’t involve one of the more difficult issues. This cautionary tale out of Boston, however, does give a new twist on the Scoreboard’s least favorite on-line conduct: anonymous postings.

Yale College and Columbia medical school-trained pediatrician Robert P. Lindeman found himself the defendant in a malpractice suit involving the death of a 12-year-old patient. The trial attracted the attention of a blog called “Dr. Flea Blog,” a specialty web log that was written by an unidentified “Northeast pediatrician.” “Flea,” according to the Boston Globe, is a somewhat derogatory name established doctors use to describe pediatricians in training. And Dr. Flea began posting comments about the contentious trial, siding, not surprisingly, with his or her fellow pediatrician.

Dr. Flea ridiculed the plaintiff’s case and the plaintiff’s lawyer, crudely dubbing her “Clarissa Lunt.” He discussed the role of jury consultants and how they would try to manipulate the jury’s emotions. He discussed the defense strategy. He even accused members of the jury of nodding off during the trial.

Dr. Flea’s was not an obscure blog. Other medical sites often linked to it. And as Dr. Flea continued to criticize the case against Lindeman, the plaintiff’s attorney, Elizabeth N. Mulvey (recall a famous Seinfeld episode, and you will understand why Flea’s nickname for the attorney had crude intent behind it) began hearing from many members of the public who said that Lindeman was being unfairly treated. This was both puzzling and alarming to attorney Mulvey: after all, the jury members could read the blog too.

Mulvey went on the blog and checked the many posts about her case. This one really opened her eyes:

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: If the basis of this case is that Flea is an arrogant, uncaring jerk who maliciously neglected a patient, resulting in his death, the plaintiff will not win, period. As much of a cocky bastard that Flea may appear in the blogosphere, the readers who have a personal acquaintance with the real 3-D doctor understand how such an approach cannot succeed.

Yes, Dr. Flea and Dr. Lindeman were one and the same! So when Mulvey got Lindeman on the stand, she asked him: “Are you Dr. Flea?” He admitted that he was. The next step for Mulvey would be to show the blog postings to the jury. Dr. Lindeman settled the lawsuit the next day.

Accused defrauding corporate executive Richard Scrushy famously used multiple websites to influence his jury pool and convince the local public that he was a persecuted saint and champion of charity rather than a scam artist. It worked, and he was acquitted despite as much or more evidence than what convicted Enron’s Ken Lay. But at least Scrushy was open about who was making the self-serving statements: he was. Lindeman, on the other hand, intentionally created the impression that an informed professional and a persuasive authority in his field independently believed that the case against him was weak. Lindeman was attempting to mislead the public and the jury using his own established and previously credible blog as a litigation tool. This goes several steps beyond authors favorably reviewing their own books under false names on, or journalists attacking their critics anonymously on assorted websites.

And what will the next step be, as unethical people conceive of more and more ways to pursue their own interests by posing as someone else in cyberspace?

Stay tuned!

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