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Doc sues Web-savvy ex-patient

April 13, 2009

A former patient of local plastic surgeon Dr. Barry Eppley says he has made her life hell the past eight years. Eppley, in a recent lawsuit, says much the same about her.

The patient, Lucille Iacovelli, has posted a steady stream of videos and caustic comments on Web sites about a face-lift surgery Eppley performed on her in 2001. Ever since, the Massachusetts resident says, she has had extreme difficulty breathing, making her homebound, pained and impoverished.

The Web campaign has cost Eppley significant business, he complained when he sued Iacovelli for defamation and loss of business March 30. Eppley has practicing privileges and rents space at the Clarian Health hospitals in Carmel and Avon and co-owns the Ology spas in those facilities.

The lawsuit, pending in federal court in Indianapolis, already has turned nasty. Iacovelli accused Eppley's attorneys of pulling a "legal stunt" by fabricating a suicide threat from her and then notifying the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. It sent police March 31 to take Iacovelli to a hospital.

Friends of Iacovelli have launched new Web sites criticizing Eppley, Clarian and even the U.S. District judge on the case, Sarah Evans Barker.

It's a sign of the times. Doctors are beginning to realize what most corporations have over the last decade: that business reputations are won and lost on the Internet.

There are now at least three dozen Web sites inviting patient reviews of doctors, and patients have embraced the offer. Doctors are beginning to respond in kind or in court.

"We are seeing more and more of this," said Kent Smith, a medical litigation attorney at Hall Render Killian Heath & Lyman in Indianapolis.

Lawsuits are one strategy to stop patients from commenting online. Other doctors have tried to pre-empt nasty comments by asking patients to sign a contract promising not to post comments about them online unless the doctor first agrees.

Other doctors haven't tried to stop online comments, but have instead joined in. In 2008, the 71-physician OrthoIndy practice started its own sites on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, putting out information about itself but also opening itself to more online comments from patients.

"It's very scary for any business to think, 'Oh, we may get a negative comment on that,'" said Kasey Peterson, OrthoIndy's manager of public relations and communications, who initiated and oversees the sites.

Peterson monitors any online comments, especially negative ones, and forwards them to various OrthoIndy departments for follow-up.

"It's a way to find out what might not be working and fix it," she said.

OrthoIndy's approach lines up with much of the counsel publicist Myra Borshoff Cook gives her clients. Helping them manage their reputations online has been an increasing focus of her firm, Borshoff, in recent years.

"You need to be sure that there are pressure valves in your system that check these things ... before they escalate," Cook said. "To have something linger for this long; how can you go back and repair it after eight years?"

Online campaign

Eppley, 53, did respond to Iacovelli's complaints—but not to her satisfaction. According to a March 2002 e-mail posted on Iacovelli's Web site, losingface.net, Eppley expressed concern for her pain but said because of her behavior after the surgery, he would no longer treat her.

"Your overall behavior as a patient has been unacceptable. While I have a great obligation to any patient that I put through surgery, patients also have some responsibility to act in a rational manner. Your behavior since the inception of surgery has been, to say the least, bizarre and irrational," Eppley wrote.

Iacovelli, 59, called Eppley's response a bunch of "lies." In a document sent to Judge Barker, Iacovelli said her comments are not defamatory but part of an "educational campaign."

On a Google search for "Barry Eppley," his Web site, eppleyplasticsurgery.com, comes up first. But coming up second, third and fourth are Iacovelli's comments on TheSqueakyWheel.com, her comments on complaintsboard.com, and then her videos on YouTube.

The videos have attracted more than 280,000 views and Iacovelli's personal Web site has more than 100,000 hits.

Eppley and his business partner both appealed to TheSqueakyWheel.com to remove Iacovelli's comments, but the site's manager refused.

"We are not dealing with a sane nor rational individual. This is a psychotic patient who has spent the past 7 years defaming me on the Internet without any basis of fact," Eppley wrote in an e-mail filed in court by Iacovelli. Eppley declined to be interviewed for this story.

In his lawsuit, Eppley complained that Iacovelli's Web campaign was scaring away patients. One lost patient can cost Eppley thousands of dollars. His Web site is promoting silicone breast augmentations at a "Tax Time Special" price of $5,999.

"Patients and potential patients, accordingly, regularly and routinely conduct Internet searches to gather information" about plastic surgeons, Eppley's attorney Todd Richardson wrote in his lawsuit. "As a consequence [of Iacovelli's Internet postings], Dr. Eppley has suffered substantial business losses."

Suicide threat

The spark that launched Eppley's lawsuit was an electronic message he says he received from Iacovelli March 18, promising to commit suicide live on the Internet on April 18—the eighth anniversary of her face-lift surgery with Eppley.

Eppley said he received subsequent electronic messages from Iacovelli counting down the days until April 18.

The day after Eppley's attorney filed those messages in court, police and emergency medical staff in Massachusetts took Iacovelli from her house to Cape Cod Hospital. Iacovelli said she was examined by a social worker and then a doctor, over 24 hours, before both concluded she was not suicidal and sent her home.

Iacovelli insists she never sent the e-mails threatening suicide. Instead, she claims Eppley and his business partner fabricated them.

"This message appears to be sent via the form on Eppley's Web site, where anyone could have entered my email address," Iacovelli wrote in an e-mail to IBJ. She added, "I do not and have never said or written that I plan to commit suicide on April 18."

Iacovelli has pointedly accused Eppley of malpractice on her Web site, but she has never initiated a formal malpractice case against him. Like many doctors, Eppley has been accused of malpractice multiple times. A medical review panel found him guilty of it once, during a May 2001 oral surgery, for which his insurance company had to pay $187,001 in damages.

When asked why she hasn't filed a formal complaint, Iacovelli wrote, "It is nearly impossible to find a lawyer willing to handle cases involving cosmetic procedures."

Barker has issued a temporary restraining order against Iacovelli and her friends, barring her from posting additional comments about Eppley online. Barker will decide whether to continue that injunction for the duration of the litigation at a hearing April 17.

Barker sits on the board of Clarian Health, a not-for-profit hospital system based in Indianapolis. Clarian is the largest investor in the for-profit hospitals at which Eppley practices, but those hospitals have their own boards and Barker is not on them.

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