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Jury Awards $11 Million for Internet Defamation 612

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the lawyers-making-everyone's-life-better dept.
dptalia writes "A woman in Florida has been awarded $11.3 million dollars in a defamation case. Apparently the defendant was unhappy with the plaintiff's referral service and posted complaints all over the internet. In a chilling slap at free speech, the jury decided that not only was this illegal, but that it was worth over $11 million. The defendant can't pay the judgement — she can't even pay for an attorney. The plaintiff says she doesn't care, but sued for the principle of the thing."
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Jury Awards $11 Million for Internet Defamation

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  • by ackthpt (218170) * on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @01:23PM (#16395605) Homepage Journal

    Today's Lesson: If you can sue someone in your home state, who can't even afford a lawyer and is out of reach due to natural disaster, you too can win really big judgements!

    Seems Ms. Sheff is no stranger to trashing others [strugglingteens.com] on web sites.

    if you can't say something nice... sue.

  • Public Eye (Score:3, Informative)

    by Conception (212279) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @01:29PM (#16395715)
    People in the public eye don't get applied to the same standards as private citizens.
  • by Random Utinni (208410) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @01:36PM (#16395885)
    While it's true that slander/libel are not protected by the 1st Amendment, that's pretty irrelevant to what happened here. According to TFA, the defendant never showed up to offer a defense. The judge, without any other way to go, found a default judgment for the plaintiff. Only at this point was a jury called, and then only to determine damages. If you're a juror, and one attorney tells you, "In my long experience, this sort of pain and suffering (or whatever) is worth $11 million", and no one is there to tell you otherwise, there's a good chance you'll find $11 million in damages. Whether it actually was slander or libel doesn't matter. If there's no defense, the defense loses, regardless of the actual facts. Damned inactivist judges...

    It turns out the defendant had her house flooded by Hurricane Katrina and had to leave... the legal notices that the plaintiff was required to send bounced back to the plaintiff and were never received. The defendant didn't show because she wasn't aware of when the trial was. Nor did she have enough money to hire a lawyer. So, odds are, had the case actually been defended, this thing would've either been thrown out or reached a defense verdict.

    I'm just suprised that the judge didn't reduce the jury's damages... that said, because the defendant had no money for an attorney, it seems unlikely that this will be appealed (which it should be).
  • Re:Confusing To Me (Score:5, Informative)

    by DragonWriter (970822) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @01:37PM (#16395907)
    As for politicians, I believe just about anything you say against them is fair game since it can be construed as a political metaphor.


    Not quite. Any public figure, included a politician, has a high bar to prove defamation under the New York Times v. Sullivan standards, which require a showing of actual malice as well as falsity. But that's not absolute license to print anything you want regardless of truth.

  • Chosing not to show up at all is throwing in the towel.

    Actually, it stated in the article that she had to leave Louisiana when hurricane Katrina hit and never got the court documents with the date to show up. They were returned by the postal service to the plaintiff's lawyer in Florida.

    So, apparently, the reason she didn't show up was not because she couldn't get an attourney. It was because she never got the summons.
  • by LochNess (239443) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @01:42PM (#16395987) Homepage
    That's insane. You mean I can call you a child molestor, specify dates and times and childrens' names and the court will accept as a defense against libel the fact that I have no idea whether it's true or not? I can't believe any legal system is that bad.


    It's not, the person you responded to is wrong:

    http://www.expertlaw.com/library/personal_injury/d efamation.html [expertlaw.com]

  • Hmm.. if I understand what you are saying, even China has free speech.

    Obviously, you don't. Otherwise you'd realize that you can't even make a free statement to get sued over. Statements that are critical of the government, or the government doesn't otherwise like are not allowed to be made in the first place. No blogs, no newspapers, no open forums, not even a public speech. If you managed to find a way around the restrictions, then the government would try to erase the incident altogether. THAT is a lack of Freedom of Speech.

    The statements that this woman made are presumably filed on public record with the courthouse, and probably haven't been deleted from the original source. The court is not making the statements go away, it is merely stating that the defendent has to make up for the damage the defendent caused the plantiff.

    See the difference yet?
  • by Travoltus (110240) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @01:44PM (#16396019) Journal
    He fell victim to the PATRIOT Act.

    It requires you give your home address to the bank and that it be verified by a major credit reporting agency.

    If there's a conflict, your account gets frozen. By law. The bank has NO leeway.

    I tell my employees to explain this in depth to customers whose accounts get frozen, so they know how the USAPATRIOT Act has violated their rights...
  • by ZWithaPGGB (608529) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @01:54PM (#16396235)
    This seems to all have come out of a set of disputes over how to deal with troubled kids that led to them being placed in a school that is part of a group [wwasp.com] that has a long trail of allegations and convictions for child abuse [strugglingteens.com].
    Sue Scheff's site is here: http://www.helpyourteens.com/index.html [helpyourteens.com]
    A google for "WWASP" and "PURE" "Sue Scheff" gives interesting information.
    The original thread and allegations are here [fornits.com].
    Members of that board don't have anything particularly nice to say [fornits.com] about this event.
  • by hellfire (86129) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [vdalived]> on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @01:56PM (#16396269) Homepage
    From TFA:

    "Bock says that when she moved back to her repaired house over the summer, she knew the trial was approaching but did not know the date. She says she doesn't have the money to pay the judgment or hire a lawyer to appeal it. She adds that if the goal of Scheff's lawsuit was to stifle what Bock says online, it worked."

    Bock is the Defendant and Scheff is the plaintiff. Bock basically was in Louisiana when Katrina hit and had to evacuate. When she got some of her lift back on track, it looks like she just say "awww fuck it, my life is turned upside-down, I can't deal with this" and simply let it go. Bock didn't even show up for the trial and had to let go of her lawyer!

    If you make no effort to show up for a trial in order to present a defense, then you will lose by default. Scheff won essentially on a technicality, not the facts of the case. I took a prior landlord to court once and he lost because he didn't show up for trial. The Judge ruled in favor of him simply because he didn't show up, and didn't even bother to look at the facts of the case. You have to show up to defend yourself or you are in contempt of court. The reason why the judgement was so large was probably because that was the maximum Scheff asked for or could get, and with no one to defend the outcome, no one was there to defend the penalty either!

    Here's more details from the article:

    Scheff, who operates a referral service called Parents Universal Resource Experts, says she referred Bock to a consultant who helped Bock retrieve her sons. Afterward, Bock became critical of Scheff and posted negative messages about her on the Internet site Fornits.com, where parents with children in boarding schools for troubled teens confer with one another.

    Basically we make a jump from Scheff providing services to help Bock to Bock becoming critical of Scheff, with no facts in between as to why. I can't blame the author of the article because she's not reporting on a violation of free speech, jus the facts of the case. I also can't judge if she was able to obtain why Bock was critical and what comments she made and where. Obviously the submitter of this article wanted to stir up he "Slander is not free speech" crowd, and succeeded in doing so, but you can't go that far unless you know more about what Bock said and what Scheff did to make Bock say those things.

    Scheff won on a technicality due to natural disaster. Winning on a technicality is not news, except for USA today, which never has any decent articles. This is one of the biggest stretches I've ever seen on slashdot. Maybe I should sue the editors and submitter for letting bullshit like this get on slashdot.
  • by Buran (150348) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @01:59PM (#16396319)
    Under CAN-SPAM, spamming can be a criminal offense.

    And you can't sue as a private citizen. You have to be an ISP or the government.

    From the Wikipedia article:

    "The legislation does not allow e-mail recipients to sue spammers or class-action lawsuits, but allows enforcement by the FTC, State Attorneys General, Internet service providers, and other federal agencies for special categories of spammers (such as banks). An individual could still sue as an ISP if (s)he ran a mail server, but this would likely be cost-prohibitive."

    So no, I can't file a lawsuit.
  • Well the majority of speech protected by the 1st amendment is exactly that, freedom from repercussion pursued by the government.

    Depends. If statements are found to be true and factual, then the plantiff usually has no case, regardless of the damages. (e.g. If I said Company FizzBang was dumping toxic waste, their libel suit would fail if it was proven that they were indeed dumping toxic waste.) Also, attempts to make amends for false statements can often prevent a case from going forward.

    If the defendant in this case had said the same things about the President she would have been protected*.

    Comments made about public figures have certain special protections that comments made about private individuals don't have. The courts have held that individuals in the public eye open themselves up to a lot more criticism, and thus that criticism should be protected. This particular case involved a private individual, and thus was not protected in the same fashion as statements about the President would be.

    If you're still unclear on this, then I recommend reading Wikipedia's explanation of Libel and the laws surrounding it. The article does a fairly good job of explaining the factors under which libel is decided:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libel [wikipedia.org]
  • Re:Katrina (Score:4, Informative)

    by Americano (920576) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @02:32PM (#16397027)
    Also from the article:
    In 2003, Scheff sued Bock for defamation. Bock hired a lawyer, but he left the case when she no longer could afford to pay him.

    When Katrina hit in August 2005, Bock's house was flooded and she moved temporarily to Texas before returning to Louisiana last June. Court papers that Scheff and her attorney David H. Pollack mailed to Bock were returned to Pollack's office in Miami.


    She knew she was being sued LONG before Katrina ever hit -- at *LEAST* 1 year & 8 months, assuming the case was filed at the end of December 2003. While I certainly am sorry for her plight, did it ever occur to her at some point after relocating to call the court, or the plaintiff's lawyers, or a lawyer who might be willing to do some pro bono work to help her out? I'm sure that she could have filed for a continuance pretty easily if she had bothered to explain her situation to the court, and try to provide a forwarding address, or at least communicate her whereabouts...

  • by DragonWriter (970822) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @02:33PM (#16397055)
    Juries don't decide the judgement in a case like this, the jury just decides innocent or guilty.


    No, actually, juries in civil cases don't decide "innocent or guilty", since that's not even an issue. They often do find both the fact and the amount of liability.
  • Re:Confusing To Me (Score:3, Informative)

    by MillionthMonkey (240664) * on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @02:59PM (#16397573)

    And in England you don't need to prove malice, hence that cryptic comment by Tom Cruise in that South Park episode about Scientology, "I'll sue you! I'll sue you in ENGLAND!"
    And in England, if you get sued for libel, the burden of proof isn't on the plaintiff, it's on YOU. People who file libel suits often engage in forum shopping [slate.com] and file them in British courts. The British system is so broken that it has a chilling effect on free speech even outside the UK.
  • by anachattak (650234) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @03:07PM (#16397725)
    Contrary to popular opinion, lawyers don't run around filing lawsuits in their own names. They have clients. Clients are the ones who decide whether or not to sue. Might as well blame the post office for delivering junk mail. Maybe the problem isn't with lawyers, but with the people who hire them.
  • by mmell (832646) <mmell@hotmail.com> on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @03:13PM (#16397863)
    After a year, you'd think Bock would've at least contacted the court - TFA is pretty clear, Bock didn't even try to defend her actions. She didn't contact the court looking for time to prepare her case (which the courts would've granted, given the situation after hurricane Katrina), she didn't send a letter explaining her situation and seeking a recess with which to prepare a defense - in short, Ms. Bock chose to make "no contest" in a civil case.

    The defendant could've showed up. Looks to me like justice won the day.

  • Re:Confusing To Me (Score:3, Informative)

    by civilizedINTENSITY (45686) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @04:05PM (#16398673)
    "There could be no uncontested facts due to the presence of only 1 litigant."

    "Ms. Bock was represented by Jan Atlas of Adorno and Yoss until June 2006 when Mr. Atlas withdrew as counsel, shortly after Ms. Bock was deposed and revealed the only reason she defamed and nearly destroyed Sue Scheff and her organization was simply because she didn't like her. After Jan Atlas withdrew from the case, the Judge postponed the trial to give Ms. Bock ample time to find new counsel or represent herself." via WebWire [webwire.com]
  • NOT random, dumbass (Score:2, Informative)

    by jonskerr (217459) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @04:09PM (#16398749) Homepage
    RTFA; she posted on community websites where the plaintiff contacts her customers. This isn't 'random' places on the internet, it's like she bought a billboard outside a store saying the store is a ripoff joint because she bought what she wanted but didn't like it when she got it home.
  • by stainles (140916) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @04:35PM (#16399215) Homepage
    "It's time to put this fucking McDonald's hot coffee case to rest: It's been held up to be a shining beacon of the spurious nature of litigation in America when in FACT it is NOT. 3rd degree burns is not spurious!"

    http://www.overlawyered.com/2005/10/urban_legends_ and_stella_liebe.html [overlawyered.com]
  • by giorgiofr (887762) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @04:52PM (#16399539)
    So, basically you DO need people to remind you that hot coffee is, indeed, hot.
    It's so tragic it's not even funny.
  • by angel'o'sphere (80593) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @05:19PM (#16399977) Homepage Journal
    The coffee case against MC Donald, and all around that, caused a lot of laughter in europe.

    Sorry, but a coffee has to have about 95 degrees, CELSIUS, yes, thats close to boiling water. The idea that you can get a coffee COLD is ridiculous. The idea that a corporation selling coffee has to explicite state: our coffee is hot, is an idioticy.

    Oh, just used a calculagtor to figure, indeed MC Donalds served the coffee exactly as I would expect it! An the guy some posts above (forgetmenot (467513) ) who claims 3rd degree burns happen at 130 degrees, how the fuck should that happen? Thats just 53 degrees celsius!

    Yeah, but talking over coffee when free speech is in danger s slightly off topic anyway ;D

    angel'o'sphere
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @05:26PM (#16400085)
    - McDonald's executives testified they KNEW their coffee was hot enough to cause 3rd degree burns (burn occur over 130 degree, McDonalds was brewing their coffee as high as 205).

    Actually, there is an ANSI standard for coffee brewing, and it calls for coffee well over 130 F.

    From ANSI/AHAM CM-1-1986, Standard 5.2.1:

    On completion of the brewing cycle and within a 2 minute interval, the beverage temperature in the dispensing vessel of the coffee maker while stirring should be between the limits of 170 degrees F and 205 degrees F (77 degrees C and 96 degrees C).

    The upper finished brew temperature limit assures that the coffee does not reach the boiling point which can affect the taste and aroma. The lower temperature limit assures generally acceptable drinking temperature when pouring into a cold cup, adding cream, sugar and spoon.

    So in fact McDonald's was following the recommendations of the US government, as far as temperature goes.

    It is true that coffee is hot and can cause very serious injuries if misused. But that is an essential characteristic of hot coffee.

    You can seriously injure yourself with a steak knife, or even a fork. Should we require restaurants to put warning signs on forks and knives? Should we require them to provide only butter knives and plastic sporks??? Hell no!
  • by glrotate (300695) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @06:46PM (#16401123) Homepage
    Just nitpicking. Otherwise a argument.
  • by sweede (563231) on Wednesday October 11, 2006 @07:41PM (#16401769)
    you said you read the article, you had to have read this then;
    "I don't feel like I can express my opinions," Bock says. "Only one side of the story was told in court. Nobody heard my side."

    You can't say that the plaintiff in this case is in the right without knowing any of the reasoning behind what was said about her and her practice.

    yes, the defendant could have gotten her sons back, but the plaintiff could have dragged this process out for a very long time and citing more and more fees due to "unexpected issues" or whatever.

    I don't think that the real issue here is about free speech, what we should be worried about is the fact that the judge didnt STOP the jurys decision or the stayed the trial KNOWING that the defendant had no council or means to defend herself. This alone is a violation of the constitution where you (the defendant) are granted an explicit right to a fair trial with representation.

    In most law situations, if the defendant shows up to court and the plaintiff is MIA, the defendant could have a mistrial and go free. If the defendant does show up for the case, the case is usually stayed and a warrent issue for appearence. The law says the defendant and/or council MUST be present for judgement.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 12, 2006 @12:56PM (#16410311)
    The entire system is broken. It is simply a huge money making scam for those involved. My wife was involved in a mminor auto accident several years ago. She was at fault as she rear ended another vehicle while trying to stop our children from fighting in the rear seat. The other vehicle was a 15 year old POS, unregistered, uninsured and should not have been on the road. This did not prevent the two passengers from suing us. They waited until two years after the accident to file suit (maximum time allowed by state law). We were never informed until we received the lawsuit that the matter had not been settled and had assumed that our insurance had covered any medical expenses and the issue was closed. Another emotionally devestating year went by while we waited for the plaintiff's lawyer to declare they were ready to go to trial (they were still undergoing "medical treatment" allegedly related to the fender bender three years before!).
        The case never went to trial, the lawyers and insurance company agreed to an arbitration. The arbitrator was... right, another lawyer.
        The plaintiff's, in my opinion, were downright idiots and had to be prompted through their entire testimony at the hearing. The mother was claiming back injuries "caused" by the accident. This despite the fact she had prior back conditions and had seen a doctor three weeks before the accident complaining about the exact word for word symptoms that were listed in the lawsuit! The daughter claimed a knee injury (discovered a year after the accident?!?!) caused her to fall (two years after the accident, one year after the alleged knee injury) and receive a concussion. This, of course, destroyed her ability to hold a job. The kicker was the accident causing her to require therapy as it "brought back memories of physical abuse by a former boyfriend"!
        The arbitrator awarded one women an amount in excess of my insurance coverage and the other a substantial sum. My company revealed my limits and they promptly accepted that amount. This matter was dragged out for three years, caused thousands in uneeded legal fees and, in my opinion, was a scam from front to back with the lawyers collecting 40%. It should never had been filed as a lawsuit unless my insurance company had refused to pay for medical and compensation. The plaintiffs never gave my company a chance, they went straight to a lawyer and never submitted bills or requested a specific amount until the arbitration.
        Every phone book I see today has stickers front and back that can be ripped off advertising lawyers for all manner of perceived wrongs. I cannot watch a cable station without seeing some slicked down lawyer telling people to sue for the slightest injury or insult. You cannot tell me that lawyers and the apparent scam artists many of them represent are not equally at fault in destroying our legal system.

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