GP sued by naturopath faces long road ahead

Anna Samecki

26/05/2022 3:40:53 PM

Dr Adam Smith thought he was doing a community service – now he’s facing up to $800,000 in legal fees.

Dr Adam Smith
Dr Smith’s lawyer fees topped almost $50,000 last month as his legal woes continue.

In 2020, Melbourne-based GP Dr Adam Smith uploaded a string of videos refuting claims made by an overseas doctor-turned-naturopath and influencer, who said she could treat stage four cancer with a (proprietary) mix of herbs and vitamins.
Eighteen months later, Dr Smith says he is $350,000 out of pocket in legal fees and facing at least another 12 months of uncertainty, having been accused of defamation and sued for more than $1 million.
‘The whole thing has become very complicated,’ he told newsGP.
‘My legal bill last month alone was almost $50,000.
‘If this continues on, I’ve been quoted upwards of $800,000 in legal fees.’
Dr Smith says it all began a few years ago when he started posting health-related videos in Filipino as a way to practice the native language of his partner.
‘We started by posting general health tips [for a Filipino audience] but then we realised there was a deluge of largely unregulated misinformation over there,’ he said.
‘You have various people, including people on national television, advertising things like oils [and] claiming they can cure all sorts of conditions.’
In an attempt to ‘debunk’ what he perceived to be pseudoscience, Dr Smith and his partner began posting ‘slap-stick style’ videos where they also answered questions from viewers.
One of his videos was aimed at Dr Farrah Agustin-Bunch, a medically trained doctor from the Philippines who was living in the US.
Dr Agustin-Bunch reportedly made the move after the medical centre she owned and operated in the Philippines was shut down in 2018 for selling unregistered health products bearing her name.
She has since established an online international store selling naturopathic products, which she promotes to her more than 3.7 million followers on social media.
Some of the products on offer include Boston C, a ‘scientific blend of herbs and extracts’ that Dr Agustin-Bunch recommends as a natural cancer treatment, Pixie Dust magnesium, and Lightning in a Bottle.
Dr Smith says he felt obliged to respond to some of the claims being posted by Dr Agustin-Bunch.
‘The next thing I knew, I was being sued,’ he said.
On Christmas Eve in 2020, Dr Agustin-Bunch sought damages, a permanent injunction restraining Dr Smith from publishing certain online material, and a mandatory injunction for the removal of posts which Dr Agustin-Bunch alleged were defamatory.
Her injunction application was refused, but the legal battle between the two parties continues and an amended statement of claim spanning hundreds of pages was filed with the Victorian Supreme Court on 21 June 2021.
Despite having medico-legal insurance, Dr Smith has so far had to fund his entire defence privately, having been informed that his indemnity insurer would not be able to cover him.
But with hundreds of thousands of dollars still required to defend himself, the GP has also established a crowdfunding page to help cover some of the legal costs.
For her part, Dr Agustin-Bunch maintains the videos have painted a false narrative and had a profound and devastating effect on her, her family and business.
She alleges the stress caused by the videos affected her ability to care for her baby and caused her to miscarry in May 2021. She also claims to have lost thousands in revenue and monthly income, as well as a book deal.
Dr Smith asserts he never intended to ‘defame or misrepresent anyone’ and just wanted to ‘debunk misinformation’.
‘I was just trying to do a good deed, but it’s ended up taking a massive toll on our lives,’ he said.
‘I hoped that it wouldn’t be so expensive, but I’ve spent $350,000 already so there’s no going back.’
He says he is now ‘working six days a week’ to make ends meet and wishes the system was better equipped to support doctors in his position.
‘I did look into insurance before posting the video, but the trouble is, no one insures for this sort of thing,’ Dr Smith said.
‘I really do think insurers need to look into this because there’s a plethora of misinformation online and if we, as medical professionals, can’t share an opinion about it then that’s not a good thing.
‘The law needs to catch up with social media.’
Aside from the videos produced by Dr Smith, the FDA also issued Dr Agustin-Bunch with a warning letter in April 2021, advising her to cease selling and promoting products that are intended for ‘use as drugs’ in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease.
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Dr Mulham Daas   27/05/2022 11:05:53 AM

It pays to learn about the law and do it yourself. I realized early in my life that if I leave people alone they wont leave me alone so going to court is necessary to keep my rights or I will be pushed around and left to feel sorry for myself. I started by reading several DIY law books. Unlike medicine, it is not difficult to learn about the law if you read a book. I also realized that many attorneys are idiots who dont do a good job and I had to correct them or I was going to lose my cases. Investing in learning about the law and do it yourself is better than spending another day at work. Now, I can go to court by myself or just need to hire an attorney as a consultant to guide me not to be a full duty attorney. This can save $700,000 out of the $800,000 of Dr Smith legal bills.

Dr Kosala Abeysundera   27/05/2022 12:23:01 PM

We should get behind Dr Smith and support him
AMA and RACGP should take leadership to support him and change the legal barriers we face against social media claims

Dr Lance Ian Otto   27/05/2022 8:39:28 PM

So do you have a gofundme page set up yet?

Dr Peter Richard Adams Gordon   28/05/2022 8:55:43 PM

Why would the Victorian Supreme Court entertain such a case? Surely this is a job for Dr Smith’s local MP. The idea of crowd funding to pay legal fees for this suit from overseas is mind-boggling. Time for the Australian legal system to step-up.