Maybe this defamation case will go to trial?

Those who watch “defamation by twitter” cases know that very few go to trial and to date none have made it to the level of appellate review.  A new case, however, has court watchers hoping for some decision, and ultimately guidance on whether defamation via social media requires legal treatment of a nature different than the garden-variety brick and mortar type of tort.  The case, Soul Circus v. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) (filed N.D. Georgia March 6, 2013) concerns a tweet by PETA claiming that “SCI [Soul Circus] does not care about the treatment, health, or wellbeing of its animals.”  The tweet, and a similar posting on the PETA Facebook site, was accompanied by an elephant, purportedly the Elephant Nosey, who appears in Soul Circus, chained to a fenced in area.   The posts received over 100,000 comments.  The same claim originally appeared on the PETA website.

Soul Circus is suing PETA for defamation, tortious interference and false light.  The case seems fairly straight forward.  Assuming Soul Circus can prove damages and that PETA cannot use the defense of truth, the circus should succeed in its claim.

Arguably, it is hard to defame in 140 characters, although here the direct allegation of animal cruelty seems straight forward enough to prove the elements of defamation, without innuendo.  However, even so, it seems to me that the question of damages is a big issue.  The traditional rule where defamation is concerned is that a defendant only commits one count of libel regardless of the number of rebroadcasts of a particular defamatory statement.  Given the proliferation of social media, should the rule change and if so should a damage reward reflect that?

Should Blogs Enjoy the Same Defamation Immunity as Newspapers?

Blog posts are not entitled to the same immunity from libel as are newspapers or other periodicals… at least in Texas.  The issue was resolved in a district court case steming from posts made by a former patient of the University Behavioral Health of Denton (UBH), “a free standing psychiatric hospital specializing in mental health and chemical dependancy care.”    Brenda Wells, a former patient of the hospital, among other things maintained a blog on which she posted defamatory comments that accused hospital staff of unprofessional and even criminal conduct. Wells tried to defend the claim arguing, that not only were the blogs not defamatory, but  that her blogs were protected under a Texas Law, which prohibits libel claims against newspapers and periodicals.  Wells argued that her blogs, which were published, were akin to the type of media receiving defamation immunity and therefore should be protected under the law.  The U.S. Discrtice Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina disagreed, finding that because ” “[p]ostings on the blog are not published at regular intervals. They are not composed of articles, news items, or the like.”

The decision in the case, Ascend Health Corp. v. Wells (here), may make sense in this particular instances, but I can think of a lot of blogs that have the sophisticated and regular type of content of which many newspapers and periodicals boast.   What about blogs that are maintained by newspaper reporters?  Such blogs would not receive immunity under this case.  This is one decision that I think should be revisited.  Thoughts?



NY 2nd Dept. finds statute of limiations didn’t toll in suit against anonymous blogger

This case comes courtesy of some of the folks up in the Town of Wayawaynda in Upstate New York.   The controversy plays out like an oscar worthy movie.  Seems as if  someone beheaded a horse and then left the head in a Wayawanda Town Board member’s swimming pool.  The incident sparked accusatory anonymous blogs, posted in turn by  wayguy, johnny500 and wawayandafirst.  The posts occured on or about August 29, 2007 and  October 6, 2007 and accused plaintiff of pulling off the “Tom Hagan.” (although, like the plaintiff in this case, no one is sure that Don Corleone’s adopted son actually committed the heinous act).

Plaintiff filed suit on July 28, 2008 against Mike Hawkins, knowns as “wayguy” and two other bloggers, John Doe johnny500 (johnny500) and John Doe wawayandafirst (Wawayandafirst). Defendant Wayne Skinner was not identified by name in the original complaint, but on September 18, 2008, Plaintiff served Skinner  with copies of the original summons and complaint assuming Skinner was  John Doe johhny500 and wawayandafirst.   Three months later, on October 20, the complaint was amended, to include Wayne Skinner (and his wife.)

Skinner argued that the case should be dismissed since the statute of limitations ran prior to the October 20th filing. (the statute of limitations had not run out prior to July 28).   But, here is the twist, turns out that although skinner was not johnny500 he   was “wawayandfirst” and the court found that since  “the remaining John Doe named by the original complaint — “John Doe wawayandafirst’ (Wawayandafirst’)” — referred to Wayne Skinner, and since he was alleged in the complaint to be the individual responsible for issuing the Wawayandafirst blog posts. Under these circumstances, the original complaint was sufficient to have apprised Wayne Skinner that he was one of the intended defendants.”

I’m not sure whether the actual claim will stick, but I am certainly glad to see the court craft its opinion to hold an “originally anonymous” blogger responsible.

What does it take to make a blog review defamation?

Calling someone a “real tool” is not enough to defame a doctor’s reputation.  The Minnesota Supreme Court recently ruled in the case, McKee v. Laurion, that a web review, written by Dennis Laurion the son of a one of Dr. David McKee’s patients, which stated, among other things, “Dr MCKee is a real tool,” was an opinion rather than fact, and therefore not actionable.

Ironically, Dr. McKee, like so many  doctors, presumably brought the action to defend his reputation, which was originally tarnished by those reading, and believing, the website on which the rating appeared.  Ironically, because of the McKee’s suit, Laurion’s words have gone viral.  What a bummer for Dr. McKee, not only did he lose his suit, but he potentially lost a wider patient base too!