A federal judge has sided with the state’s two largest newspapers in a lawsuit filed by a former Maine podiatrist who was accused of providing poor medical care to veterans.

The Portland Press Herald reported in 2017 that six veterans had sued the federal government over alleged mistreatment of foot and ankle problems at the Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Augusta. The complaints came amid national criticism of the Department of Veterans Affairs over mismanagement and long wait lists that resulted in deaths. Other news outlets, including the Bangor Daily News, also published stories on those lawsuits.

Dr. Thomas Franchini, the podiatrist at the center of the allegations, was not a defendant in those cases but was named in court documents and subsequent news coverage. He filed his lawsuit against multiple publications and reporters in 2018. Along with the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News, he named as defendants the national publications USA Today and Investors Business Daily. His claims included libel and defamation, as well as negligent infliction of emotional distress.

U.S. District Judge George Singal on Friday found that Franchini should be considered under the law as a public figure involved in the controversy surrounding the care provided to veterans at Togus. He granted summary judgment to most defendants in Franchini’s suit as a result.

“Due to the inherent free speech implications of defamation actions, the U.S. Constitution imposes various requirements independent of those established by state law,” Singal wrote in his order. “One such requirement denies to plaintiffs deemed to be either public figures or public officials any recovery in the absence of proof of actual malice.”

Attorney Cynthia Counts, who represented the Press Herald, said the judge previously found that there was no evidence of actual malice, which means there was no evidence that the newspapers knowingly published false information or acted with a reckless disregard for whether the report was false or not. So this decision ended the case against the newspapers and reporters from Maine.

“We accurately reported the truth about a critical public health concern at the VA hospital,” Press Herald Executive Editor Cliff Schechtman said in a statement. “We’re pleased the court ruled in our favor.”

“This really was a well-reasoned decision,” Counts added.

Attorney Raymond Belair, one of the lawyers representing Franchini, said his client did not have the kind of public profile to justify the judge’s finding, and they intend to appeal the judge’s order. A finding of actual malice is not required for private citizens to recover compensatory damages.

“I don’t think that decision was accurate,” Belair said.

Two claims – one against Investors Business Daily, one against USA Today and its reporter – remain pending in the case.

Franchini left Togus in 2010, and Belair said he is now in private practice in the New York area.

The federal government has settled five of the cases brought by former Togus patients. The settlements allowed for all pending claims to be resolved without the government admitting liability or fault, and the plaintiffs received a combined $1 million.


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