Thursday, October 12, 2006

$11.3M award for Internet defamation

A Florida woman who sued over defamatory postings on an Internet bulletin board has won a jury verdict of $11.3 million, including $5 million in punitive damages, reports the Daily Business Review. The woman, Susan Scheff, sued after she and her company were accused of being "crooks," "con artists" and "frauds."

Scheff, who describes herself as an educational consultant, was hired by Carey Bock to help get Bock's two sons out of a school for troubled teens in Costa Rica. Scheff was successful, but Bock later posted the accusations on a bulletin board for parents of troubled teens.

USA Today reports that Scheff pursued the case even though she knew Bock would be unable to pay an award. Bock could not afford an attorney and did not appear at the trial. Scheff told USA Today that she wanted to make a point to those who unfairly criticize others on the Internet. "I'm sure [Bock] doesn't have $1 million, let alone $11 million, but the message is strong and clear. People are using the Internet to destroy people they don't like, and you can't do that."

7 comments:

Tish G. said...

There seems to be something of an irony in this: don't we use various forms of social software for recommendations? And isn't it the duty and responsiblity of the community to tell us what they think of a person and their service? And then isn't it on the part of the person/service under fire to defend their reputation?

Verdicts like this seem to me to demonstrate a chilling effect--that we can't say we're dissatisfied with a particular service--that we are no longer going to be allowed to speak publicly about how we believe a service has done us a disservice. It's beginning to feel as if we should, as so many of our mothers advised, "only say good things" about others. If that's the case, then that means we cannot compare notes and ferrit out fraud in a public space such as the Internet.

Frank Williams said...

I agree with the above poster. Way back in 1964 when New York Times Co. v. Sullivan was decided the Supreme Court ruled that to be libel “actual malice” had to be proven. This was so that reporters could actually report on the civil rights movement at the time without fear of being sued. Mrs. Brock was just expressing a dissatisfaction with the service she was given, not being slanderous against Susan Scheff.
In Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. the court established the standard of First Amendment protection against defamation claims brought by private individuals. The Court held that, so long as they do not impose liability without fault, states are free to establish their own standards of liability for defamatory statements made about private individuals. However, the Court also ruled that if the state standard is lower than actual malice, then only actual damages may be awarded. The consequence of this is that strict liability for defamation is unconstitutional; the plaintiff must show that the defendant acted negligently or with an even higher level of mens rea. In this case the defendant was being neither reckless or negligent with her comments.

Frank Williams said...

I agree with the above poster. Way back in 1964 when New York Times Co. v. Sullivan was decided the Supreme Court ruled that to be libel “actual malice” had to be proven. This was so that reporters could actually report on the civil rights movement at the time without fear of being sued. Mrs. Brock was just expressing a dissatisfaction with the service she was given, not being slanderous against Susan Scheff.
In Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. the court established the standard of First Amendment protection against defamation claims brought by private individuals. The Court held that, so long as they do not impose liability without fault, states are free to establish their own standards of liability for defamatory statements made about private individuals. However, the Court also ruled that if the state standard is lower than actual malice, then only actual damages may be awarded. The consequence of this is that strict liability for defamation is unconstitutional; the plaintiff must show that the defendant acted negligently or with an even higher level of mens rea. In this case the defendant was being neither reckless or negligent with her comments.

Handal said...

Rporting on the civil rights movement is one thing where a publication wished to report the facts about the story. Where people go over the line is when they start to make allegations that are simply false, and they know it, and seek to do harm to the other person. When the false accusations and lies are posted, it can then hurt those involved, in many ways. Now, the accuser has become what they malign; they become the liars and the crooks and the con artists.

We all have to realize that free speech came with a huge price and still does: personal responsibility and accountability. To claim the blanket of protection while throwing lies and falsehoods about is reckless abandonment of the spirit of free speech, and does a tremendouse disservice to those of us who understand the intent, not to mention those who have died to provide for it.

Too many people think free speech is a license to say whatever they want without accountability reprisal, or repercussion of any type, at any time.

Thomas H. McGowan said...

This was a default judgment which is in the process of being set aside. One of the defenses that should have been raised is truth.

Georgiann Serpe said...

Freedom of Speech is a commendable right. Unfortunately, it is the dredge of our society that hides behind this privilege at the cost of innocents. Case in point; there is a website out there called dirtyscottsdale.com that has singled out my son, going as far as making an entire new section called dirty business, as someone that runs a 'phony magazine' which is a false statement. Above this false statement is a picture of my son, 24, and daughter, 19. The entire purpose of this website is to defame, ridicule, and otherwise torment whomever has their picture on the site. Over 100 posts have been made about my kids in which the general public at large is able to say whatever they would like, including racial slurs, sexually derogatory comments about my daughter including, but not limited to, a desire to sodomize her and defecate into her mouth, discussing my son's businesses, his home, his car, etc. So should we just throw our hands up and say, 'Oh well, freedom of speech' of should these monsters be held liable for the crimes they are perpetrating upon my kids? As for the freedom of speech theory...the site refuses to post my comments. I have tried on five different occasions to set the record straight, but they will not publish them...is that fair? Is my daughter living in fear because of the comments posted on this site fair? I have had an attorney send a letter to the people listed under the domain name to cease and desist. Nothing. No response. No relief. Just negativity to which I cannot even respond. Any suggestions?

One Who Knows said...

I feel for you, Georgiann and I really hope you can find a good defamation lawyer to sue the a$$es who run that website, especially if they're using sexually derogatory statements that degrade your daughter's chastity...there's an old english law that protects that and if you have proof of these statements, then damages is "per se" meaning it's implied and you don't have to prove the damage of these comments.

As for the above statements, I think you've got it very twisted in regards to the freedom of the internet. You CAN say you're dissatisfied with anything you want, but when you start using words like "frauds" and "crooks" you'd better back it up with facts. The internet is a double edged sword and too many people get ballsy and say things they wouldn't dare because they think they don't have to be accountable. That woman LOST because she couldn't prove her accusations "fraud." She got what she deserved.