I am neither your lawyer nor your doctor
September 8, 2015 5:30 AM   Subscribe

I see a lot of answers to AskMetafilter questions with some variation of I AM NOT YOUR LAWYER or I AM NOT YOUR DOCTOR, especially when Americans reply. This seems so obvious to me that at first I thought it a bit childish. Then, it got me thinking. Can someone be sued for providing or appearing to provide legal or medical advice on the Internet? Is that what the disclaimer is intended for?
posted by Kwadeng to Grab Bag (31 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Theoretically yes. Practically speaking, it almost never happens. However, from a risk tolerance perspective or just a CYA perspective, people err on the side of clarity. You can read this discussion on Quora talking about the issues involved for lawyers, similar discussion on Reddit. Here's one talking about the issues involved for medical professionals. Or this discussion on AskMe about advice generally and a MeTa thread from one of MeFi's medical professionals where the issue is discussed.
posted by jessamyn at 5:47 AM on September 8, 2015 [8 favorites]

In Illinois a lawyer can be held professionally responsible for gratuitous advise.
posted by prk60091 at 5:49 AM on September 8, 2015 [4 favorites]

Yes. My understanding is that the "IANYL" / "this is not legal advice" warnings are meant to a) guard the adviser against being sued if the advice leads to bad outcomes and b) guard the adviser where it is illegal for them to give legal advice.

a) If you employ a lawyer and they give you bad advice and it causes you loss, then you can sue them to recover your losses. They usually have insurance against this. I think their insurance wouldn't cover them if you weren't their client, so they want to avoid this situation.

b) I think it is actually illegal in some countries to give "legal advice" if you are not in a lawyer-client relationship. See e.g. http://hirealawyer.findlaw.com/do-you-need-a-lawyer/what-is-legal-advice.html . (The precise meaning of "legal advice" will be in the statute.)

(I am not a lawyer; this is just a summary.)
posted by richb at 5:50 AM on September 8, 2015

I think the answer is yes, doctors and lawyers can be held liable for random internet advice. However, I think people will sometimes say things like "I am an auto mechanic, but I am not your auto mechanic" as a bit of a joke, riffing on the doctor/ lawyer thing.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:58 AM on September 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

No, not in my wife's jurisdiction. If she gives you free advice over the internet (and she is a fully qualified lawyer) and you follow that advice, and you suffer a loss, and you happen to live, work and lose in the same place she operates, you have got absolutely fuck all to utter zero chance of making a successful claim against her. Where's your contract, fee estimate, etc etc? No, any and all judges would throw your claim out at the very first instant.
posted by wilful at 6:07 AM on September 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

There may also be a benefit in a purely conversational way in redirecting ire. I recently had a guy threaten to file charges with the state's attorney against me because I explained how he was incorrect regarding copyright laws. He was prepared to sue me because I was offering free legal advice on the internet, which he claimed was somehow illegal. I haven't heard from the state's attorney yet, but had I qualified my statement with "I'm not a lawyer, this isn't legal advice" he probably would have had fewer things to freak out about.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:11 AM on September 8, 2015

I don't know how it works on the internet, but in real life, yes, so a lot of people are in the habit of saying it, just in case. I had to routinely give this disclaimer while providing information in a law library, even though I obviously wasn't really giving advice or posing as a lawyer.
posted by thetortoise at 6:12 AM on September 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

As a side-thought, it should be mentioned that the thing has evolved into a bit of a site-spanning meme. People use it to (sometimes funnily) indicate:

"I know a bit about this, and I really want to say this here, but there will be professionals out there who are more authoritative about it."
posted by Namlit at 6:20 AM on September 8, 2015 [4 favorites]

It is also the duty of a lawyer who is behaving in a way that might seem like they are on your side and giving you fully reliable and in your best interests advice to make sure that they are not. Although some lawyers don't take any of their professional responsibility seriously, most do.

Many lawyers just want to make sure you're not really relying on their opinion to the point that you're harmed, regardless of the fact that in some states an attorney can suffer professional consequences as a result of giving a legal opinion to someone with a legal problem, because we know that there's no way we have sufficient information to really guide you after reading a brief description of your problem on the internet.

However, we speak up because nonlawyers often say things that will cause you legal trouble or are just plain wrong and it worries us to know you might take the misleading or dangerous advice. Even as we know that ours may also be based on incomplete knowledge of the situation, we at least know which laws apply and how the situations usually shake down.
posted by crush-onastick at 6:21 AM on September 8, 2015 [18 favorites]

It's not always about actual legal liability. It's also a reminder that internet advice is just internet advice. The person who you should actually be asking legal questions to is not random people on the internet, it's not even just A lawyer, it's YOUR lawyer. The person you should be asking tax questions to, the person you should be asking medical questions to... all that. But we all know you're not really going to do that for every little thing. Still, it's worth the reminder that if someone says IANAL, this is quite possibly an issue where if it really matters, that person's opinion should not be your authoritative source. IANAD advice is probably fine if you're asking how to deal with a stubbed toe, but otherwise it's worth remembering that it's absolutely possible that this person on the internet might freak you out by telling you that your headache could be a brain tumor, but they could also unreliably comfort you by telling you that your headache is definitely not a brain tumor when they have no way of knowing that.

If you're asking a question and you get an IANAL kind of response, it's a sign that you're asking a question that has some specialized knowledge required, and you are asking it of the equivalent of a bunch of strangers at a bus stop, so behave accordingly.
posted by Sequence at 6:28 AM on September 8, 2015 [14 favorites]

Here's info at Wikipedia. This has been around for a long time, originating long before Ask Metafilter.
posted by taz at 6:29 AM on September 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

I do use this when discussing areas related to my day job (which is a professional service which is neither doctoring nor lawyering).

In my case, it's for two reasons. First, I want to make it VERY CLEAR that I am not acting in a professional capacity, and as such, the OP has no claim on my firm's Errors and Omissions insurance. Second, I don't have all the information about the situation. This means that although I can provide some information, it may not be the same information (or advice) I would provide if I had all the details and did have a professional relationship with the OP.

When answering this type of question, I do also generally try to include where the OP can go to get more specific information about their problem.

I also use IANAD, because I am not a doctor. If I'm commenting on a medical post, it's usually because I've been through something similar as a patient, and I think it's helpful to be clear about the fact that my background is as a patient, not as a doctor.
posted by pie ninja at 6:47 AM on September 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

The collection of MetaTalk threads at the MeFi Wiki Get a Lawyer page may help answer your question.

In theory, the disclaimers help protect the person asking the question and the person answering it, by making it clear that no attorney-client relationship is formed and that the answer should not be relied on when making decisions about what to do.

In the AskMe collection at the MeFi Wiki Get a lawyer page, this is framed as 'identifying issues to discuss with an attorney.'
posted by Little Dawn at 6:48 AM on September 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Speaking as someone who's used the "I am not your doctor" disclaimer, my intent is actually what Namlit is describing above ("I may know stuff about this, but I didn't go to med school and so odds are that someone who did would probably know more and I yield to what they know").
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:52 AM on September 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

now I am assuming that the comments above are for CYA's in the US? what could theoretically happen if someone wanted to pursue this? Sue Metafilter (or parent company) for the "real" name and address of "Alchemist"? If successful, then they find out I live in Denmark, and......?
posted by alchemist at 7:07 AM on September 8, 2015

As mentioned upthread, they can get sued. It doesn't usually come up, but it costs nothing to add a few letters onto a response. It's not MeFi-specific but may be US-centric.

The other bit I think of when people add disclaimers is that it's a useful way to remind the audience that we don't have all the relevant details. Oh, your description of your symptoms sounds just like the time I had this thing that was no problem, but you may have preexisting conditions you didn't mention, for which it would be serious. It also, to me, clarifies that the asker should not expect a lot of super detailed follow up. I have friends and colleagues in cancer research, not doctors, who get some pretty heavy unsolicited requests for help. If they're giving a presentation geared to the general public they say things carefully to minimize the number of people coming up afterwards asking to be healed with medicines that are nowhere near clinical trials.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:14 AM on September 8, 2015

I'm a therapist. I mostly try to avoid giving direct advice in threads in which it might seem like I was acting as a therapist; if I do give direct advice, I sometimes throw in some disclaimer about how I am not the asker's therapist. Partly because it's illegal for me to practice outside my state, so I don't want to look as if I'm doing so, and partly because I feel it's unethical for me to let an asker assume I'm "doing therapy" with them when I'm not, and being as clear as possible is more ethical, in my mind, than assuming they're not assuming. So for me it's not just a legal thing but more often an ethical thing.
posted by jaguar at 7:26 AM on September 8, 2015 [4 favorites]

Also, a lot of professional licenses have requirements that the licensed person act in an ethical manner in general. (I can have my therapy license suspended for being arrested for drunk driving, for instance.) So many of us are likely to err on the side of being as above-board as possible, because it's not just about being sued but about dealing with potential complaints to our licensing boards.
posted by jaguar at 7:34 AM on September 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

what could theoretically happen if someone wanted to pursue this? Sue Metafilter (or parent company) for the "real" name and address of "Alchemist"? If successful, then they find out I live in Denmark, and......?

And the real answer is "it's complicated" and would depend on what sort of legal advice mathowie et. al. received. The legal status of the site (very rarely threatened, never actually sued etc) is a different issue, complicated by this site not having a privacy policy, terms of service, etc. Probably a MeTa post question. Matt had always said, in the past, that the site would comply with all legal law enforcement requests which is something that (to the best of my knowledge) he's never had to actually do though I think he did help out some local police once when there was a known Ebay scammer using AskMe to get scam advice.
posted by jessamyn at 7:42 AM on September 8, 2015

Also, the IANYL is a disclaimer that states: "This is not creating a professional relationship." Professionals often have a duty requirement that, by law, once they begin work on a matter they're required to see it through unless released by the client or under other legally defined circumstances, and by stating upfront that they are not your attorney, they're also disclaiming the possibility that answering your question means they are becoming your attorney on that matter.
posted by eriko at 8:20 AM on September 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

In medicine, malpractice requires a doctor-patient relationship to be established first. "I am not your doctor" tries to make this very clear.
posted by gramcracker at 9:18 AM on September 8, 2015

Just curious: has anyone anywhere ever successfully sued an anonymous Internet user for providing the wrong advice with disastrous consequences?
posted by Kwadeng at 9:36 AM on September 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Talked about tangentially in this Metatalk thread. Essentially no one at that time could come up with an example. The cases where people do get sued for internet postings seem all to include fraud of one sort or another.
posted by Mitheral at 11:49 AM on September 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Certainly in the UK, providing 'immigration advice' (paid or unpaid) if you don't have the right legal qualification is against the law and people have been fined and even in exceptional cases gone to jail for it. I have some experience of immigration (though IANAL :) ) and this is something to be careful of - people in difficult situations can be very persistent with pushing for advice beyond what they can be helped with!

The devil is in what constitutes 'advice' - a discussion among friends doesn't count as advice for the purposes of the law. Neither does it count if either party is outside the UK. But well-meaning people have occasionally crossed the line (e.g. helping people fill out the requisite forms maybe crossing the line, rather than giving general suggestions which is generally ok - with admirable motives - and good character is a mitigating circumstance). And this goes for the Internet as much as real life.

The truth is that it's unlikely that anyone would be prosecuted for a fairly friendly discussion on an Internet forum. But for that aspect of law, for the UK, it's something to be careful of.

It's also a good flag for the person on the receiving end - I've seen enough examples of people who might be in a difficult situation taking bad suggestions off Internet people who may have some experience but not enough, or well-meaning people giving suggestions when there's a crucial detail missed out from the background that changes everything, that it's good to emphasise IANYL.
posted by plep at 11:58 AM on September 8, 2015

I think it's clear that people use IANAL and its variations as a disclaimer, but the more important question is whether the disclaimer actually holds up. Can you really insulate yourself against liability for providing legal advice or unauthorized practice of law by simply saying so? I don't know that it's ever been tested. But when I see "IANYL, TINLA" followed by a highly specific analysis of the poster's situation and suggestions of what to do next, I really think, "You know, you said that's not legal advice, but it sure looks like legal advice, and the poster probably considers it as such."

I work in legal publishing, and we sometimes have customers contact us with what seems to be a request for legal advice. We are always careful not to provide specific or tailored answers, instead guiding the customer on where to start to research the legal issue. Never have I heard anyone suggest that we can just say "We are not your lawyer, but here's some advice..."
posted by mama casserole at 12:03 PM on September 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think it's clear that people use IANAL and its variations as a disclaimer, but the more important question is whether the disclaimer actually holds up. Can you really insulate yourself against liability for providing legal advice or unauthorized practice of law by simply saying so?

I'm pretty sure the answer to that is 'no'. :) Just saying you aren't giving legal/medical/immigration etc. advice and then contradicting that and doing so when you aren't allowed to doesn't absolve you. (I'm thinking of cases in the UK where people who either hadn't got or had lost their immigration licence actually gave what was deemed to be legal advice despite saying the equivalent of 'IANAL' - whether it's a disclaimer on their website or whatever). The form of words or a disclaimer doesn't absolve anyone from responsibility when they do exactly the opposite.

However, informally saying 'IANAL' at least flags up to the recipient that they should do their own research and take responsibility for following up on that. Which they should do anyway when dealing with important issues. But - I've been surprised by how many people don't, so it's worth reiterating.
posted by plep at 12:09 PM on September 8, 2015

There are a number of other potential risks for attorneys providing legal advice. They are likely not licensed to practice law in the jurisdiction in question and want to avoid getting entangled in unauthorized practice complaints and more importantly need to make clear that no lawyer-client relationship is established -- you don't have an expectation of confidentiality, there is no assurance that the attorney doesn't have a conflict of interest and the attorney is under no obligation to continue to represent you.

I doubt there has ever been a successful malpractice suit based on internet comments or it would be talked about in every CLE for the next decade. There may well have been bar complaints filed based on internet interactions, but they are not well-indexed.
posted by Lame_username at 12:09 PM on September 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think people will sometimes say things like "I am an auto mechanic, but I am not your auto mechanic" as a bit of a joke, riffing on the doctor/ lawyer thing.

The other aspect to this is that it's a way of saying, "no, really, go see your actual auto mechanic. You need a professional opinion from someone who can look at/poke at your actual car and diagnose its specific problems, not just someone on the internet who can't see or run tests on your car in person." Sometimes people ask medical/car/household DIY/pet advice questions with the hope that they then won't have to pay for a professional opinion, and it can be difficult but worthwhile to convince them that yes, they really do need to shell out.
posted by capricorn at 12:30 PM on September 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

when I see "IANYL, TINLA" followed by a highly specific analysis of the poster's situation and suggestions of what to do next, I really think, "You know, you said that's not legal advice, but it sure looks like legal advice, and the poster probably considers it as such."

This is the exact reason for the disclaimer.

The answerer, who may be professionally familiar with that exact scenario and therefore is qualified to provide information to the asker, wishes to do so in a helpful capacity as part of their role in a community like this one. But they are aware of the delicacy required by providing that information without a professional contract, and the IANYL, TINLA statement says "use this information wisely, consciously, and preferably under the advisement of your own lawyer".
posted by a halcyon day at 1:39 PM on September 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am an acupuncturist (a job that Metafilter is not a huge fan of) and the reason I always say I am not your acupuncturist is

1. to make it clear I am giving general advice from the position of someone licensed in the field but

2. I do not know all the specifics of the case (especially in acupuncture, where the practitioner does an observing part of the intake that could include looking, listening, and/or palpating. This observing part is equally important to what the client complains of.)

I cannot imagine I would be sued for such advice but I try to only answer questions in a way that talks about the profession and patient expectations, not about specific things a lay person could do to treat themselves.
posted by mutt.cyberspace at 8:02 PM on September 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm an Independent Beauty Consultant with Mary Kay. I disclaim that I'm not your IBC for two reasons. 1 - I don't want to give the impression that I'm trying to get you to buy something when I'm offering advice related to your skin care or what color cosmetics might look good on you. 2 - there might be a better product out there in the wide world of cosmetics for your skin needs, about which I know nothing. I know my products, and that's it. I also always offer to help you find an IBC near you so you can try MK products before you ever think about buying them from anybody.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 9:06 AM on September 10, 2015

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